Life handed Laurel Hart a debilitating disease at birth, and she fought back by making jewelry. Not just any jewelry, but artwork so distinctive that it is still to this day instantly recognizable by the vibrancy of the colors, the whimsy of the designs, and the message of harmony that it evokes.
Born in 1945 with osteopetrosis, otherwise known as brittle bone disease, Laurel spent her early years shunned from normal childhood activities because her bones easily broke just from being bumped.
She grew up in the San Fernando Valley of California. Her parents divorced early, leaving Laurel’s mother to provide for her young children alone. She supported her two daughters on a seamstress’s salary, augmented by designing ensembles for the singer Peggy Lee.
By fourteen Laurel was a rebellious young teen who left home with a paper bag stuffed with clothes and headed for the mecca of the streets of San Francisco. Determined not to let her disease rob her of life, Laurel took on odd jobs like babysitting and cooking for families.
She married Robert Burch, a jazz musician, at nineteen. When the marriage fell apart a few years later, leaving her with her own two young children to support, Laurel began designing jewelry and selling it on the street to supplement her welfare checks.
At first, she made jewelry in her kitchen from any metal scrap that others had discarded. Using the back of an old cast iron frying pan and a hammer, she banged the metal into unusual shapes and added old coins, beads, and/or bits of bone to create necklaces, pendants, and earrings.
She was her own best advertisement, as she donned her jewelry prior to walking through the streets. It wasn’t long before people stopped her and asked where they could buy that jewelry. Little by little she developed a passionate following of steady customers.
Her artwork reflected the hippie ethic of peace. Quirky cats and dogs smiled together in iridescent colors while exotic flowers and trees filled the background. The message of harmony was woven through each canvas she painted.
By the mid 1960s, Laurel’s distinctive jewelry was no longer hawked only in flea markets and the streets of San Francisco, she now sold pieces to local stores. When those pieces quickly sold, Laurel designed more.
In the late ‘60s, a local businessman took samples of her work to China, and Laurel began to receive international recognition and commissions. Despite her bone condition, Laurel traveled to China in the early ‘70s and discovered cloisonné, a form of enameled artwork. She returned to the states and sketched designs for cloisonné earrings, which eventually became her most recognized art form. She was the first Western woman ever invited to China as an artist and a business person.
In 1979, she formed her own company, Laurel Birch Inc. and continued the flow of her art onto paper, porcelain and fabrics. As she entered this new business phase, she produced coffee mugs, tote bags, t-shirts, teapots and other household items emblazoned with her signature bold colors. The idea for each product still stemmed from one of her original paintings.
Never having the opportunity to attend art school, Laurel was a self-taught artist, and a dedicated one. Through the years her bones became more brittle. She would often be rushed to the hospital with a broken arm and during recuperation, continue creating artwork from her hospital bed, even though her arm was in a cast. She even taught herself how to paint left handed after multiple breaks to her right arm.
As the years progressed, Laurel became confined to a wheelchair, but she refused to stop creating art, even when the simple act of yawning broke her jawbone.
She always wore her own art, each an explosion of color conveying hope, life, and a sense of whimsy with dangling earrings of mythical cats, elongated necklaces of wood and beads, and flowing silk garments of riotous colors that complemented her art.
In September, 2007, Laurel died at the age of sixty-two from complications of her brittle bone disease.
But her art lives on. If you find vibrant feathered birds, fantastical felines, and luminescent wild horses cavorting against a canvas, coffee mug, teapot, tote bag, or earring, recognize that they are the spirit of one talented, strong woman; her testimony that we should all strive to live life to the fullest.
Thank you to Ronna Sittig and Brenda Tanner for gifting me two treasured Laurel Burch items, back in the day.
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~ linda ~