Artist Laurel Burch dies at 61
by Beth Ashley
Artist Laurel Burch, a ’60s flower child whose joyful creativity launched a merchandising empire, died Thursday morning at her home in Terra Linda. She was 61.
She leaves behind a heritage of brightly colored images that are known worldwide – fanciful cats, horses, birds, blossoms and undersea creatures that have been reproduced in paintings, T-shirts, scarves, ceramics, fabrics, tote bags and cloisonne jewelry. Her work continues to be sold throughout the world.
In recent months, Ms. Burch had been in declining health and rampant pain from the effects of a lifelong disease, osteopetrosis, which caused her bones to break at the slightest impact. Most had been broken multiple times.
She once told the Independent Journal that when she was diagnosed – at age 7 – she reacted by creating a place inside herself that was “beautiful, safe, colorful and happy.” There she invented the images that became her “bridges to people. I just wanted to pass on the joy of what I saw.”
“Her whole life was about creating beauty,” said Aarin Burch, the artist’s daughter. “To creating beauty – and to giving. I don’t know anyone who ever met her who didn’t walk away with something she gave them.”
Her work was “healing and nurturing and positive,” said her husband of nine months, Rick Sara, a longtime associate who helped manage her business.
Ms. Burch was under hospice care at the time of her death and “left very gracefully,” Sara said. “Wednesday night she was comfortable and seemed at peace.”
A memorial service is pending.
Plans are in the works for traveling exhibits and a permanent museum of Ms. Burch’s work. In the past year, the artist had been putting together a book about her jewelry, the art that launched her global career; Sara said Monday he wasn’t sure if the book would be completed.
Ms. Burch began her career on the streets of San Francisco where, as a 20-year-old divorced mother, she sold homemade jewelry to support her two children. “I found metal in the junkyard and hammered it out on the back of a frying pan.”
Those designs, soberly colored necklaces and earrings of beads and metal, were replaced in the early ’70s when she took her designs to China and had them crafted in multicolored cloisonne. The Burch phenomenon took off from there.
From earrings she branched out into scarves, coffee mugs, sweat shirts and posters. Her images became cultural icons and were sold in 500 stores throughout the world.
At one point, she was forced to spend 90 percent of her time supervising more than 400 employees, plus office buildings and warehouses in numerous cities. In 1995, to free time for her artwork, she sold her properties and turned to licensing instead. For the past several years, her designs have been sold to companies that manufacture, promote and distribute her work in the United States, Egypt, Japan, Italy, England and Greece.
“People want (her work) as much as ever,” Sara said. “It’s quite remarkable.”
Creating art was the core purpose and delight of Ms. Burch’s life: even when hospitalized, as she frequently was, she continued to paint, and at home – until recently – she painted every day. “I don’t think of myself as working or not working,” she once said. “It’s a way of life. It’s seamless.”
“I fell in love with her art,” said longtime friend Ann Brebner of San Rafael. “She was full of ideas; there was something doing, something she wanted to do, every day.”
Ms. Burch was born in 1945 in Southern California and left home at age 14, cleaning houses and baby-sitting in exchange for room and board. She married a jazz musician and had her first child at age 19. At 20, with hair to her waist, skirts to her ankles, and baby Aarin on her back, she moved – sans husband – to San Francisco.
She set up a jewelry business in a garage.
Later, with her estranged husband, she had a second child, Jay.
Today, both children are filmmakers. Jay, a resident of San Francisco, also works with Sara in running his mother’s business; Aarin, who lives in Berkeley, is working on a film about her mother’s life.
Ms. Burch moved to Sausalito in the 1980s, and in the ensuing years lived variously in Healdsburg, Mill Valley, Novato and Terra Linda.
“She had this remarkable spirit,” Sara said. “It kept her alive decades beyond what doctors expected.”
Though she has died, “we are overwhelmed by her presence. She’s still here. She’s going to be around in her artwork for a long, long time.”
When arrangements are finalized, information about services and memorial gifts will be posted on her Web site, www.laurelburch.com.
Article Launched: 09/17/2007 11:14:57 PM PDT