Work by artist Laurel Burch gets new life in Berkeley store daughter

Aarin Burch once felt that her mother’s artwork was “her thing, not my thing.” But 13 years after Laurel Burch died in 2007, her daughter opened a store in Berkeley, continuing her mother’s legacy. “I realized I could do so many things with this,” she says. “I can be around art all day, working with people and doing things I’m passionate about.” Credit: Alix Wall

Laurel Burch’s art is instantly recognizable to Bay Area women of a certain age. In the ’70s and ’80s, her Cloisonne earrings could be found in every Bay Area gift shop. And her brightly colored, whimsical designs of flowers, birds, and cats — she’s probably best known for the elongated cats — were everywhere, on T-shirts, scarves and tote bags.

Now, between the ages of 60 and 80, it is these women who “make the brand what it is,” says her daughter Aarin. Although Laurel Burch passed away in 2007, a store owned by her daughter, Laurel Burch Studios, in Berkeley opened to the public in March 2020, only to be immediately closed by a shelter.

While many stores around the world sell Laurel Burch merchandise, this is the only “flagship store” that consists solely of her designs. Aarin Burch tried to organize a bigger opening last fall, but given COVID-19 and the Delta variant, it still wasn’t the opening she was hoping for.

The store will host a series of Open Studios festivities from November 18-21, and while Aarin Burch wants to spread the word among her mother’s legions of fans, she hopes to show her work to younger generations as well.

It took Aarin Burch a while to decide to make her mother’s legacy her most important gig.

“I don’t have any new art from her, but I’m figuring out how to blow up an image and move it in new ways.” — Aarin Burch

For most of Burch’s life “this was her thing, not my thing,” she told Berkeleyside in an in-store interview. “But a few years later I realized that I can do so many things with this. I can spend all day doing art, working with people and doing things I’m passionate about.”

Burch said she especially enjoys the artistic freedom of keeping her mother’s work fresh by introducing new designs. Her mother was so prolific that she will never run out, she said. During the interview, she pulled out one of her mother’s sketchbooks that her stepfather had just found, with many new line drawings in it. Almost all images, whether socks, scarves, pillowcases, gardening gloves or (finally) face masks, first came to life in a painting by Burch.

Face masks with Laurel Burch designs at the Berkeley store. Credit: Alix Wall

“My mom would make a painting and then put the image on a T-shirt,” Aarin Burch said. “I don’t have any new art from her, but I’m figuring out how to blow up an image and move it in new ways. I can cut out and move one flower or one creature so that the creature is peeking around the flower, for example.”

Although her mother never specifically asked her children to carry on her legacy before she died, she at least left her daughter with these words: “Whatever you do, do it your way, don’t try to do it my way.” do it… If you do it your way, that’s the right way.”

What a gift that was, Burch thought. Although she is very much her mother’s daughter, her mother did not share two major parts of her identity; Aarin is colored and queer.

She tries to find a balance, doing things her way and still staying true to her mother, adapting her mother’s messages of inclusiveness to the world we live in today. It has often been difficult. For example, when she supported the Black Lives Matter movement on her email list, some of her mother’s more conservative fans criticized her for politicking the brand.

“I see it as my job and my journey to use her bold and unashamed work, to bring it to the people I want to make a difference for today,” she said.

Burch’s mother, Laurel, grew up in the San Fernando Valley. She came to the Bay Area because she wanted to be a singer and had an on-again, off-again relationship with jazz musician Robert Burch; she had two children with him at age 25, before breaking up for good. It fell on her to support her children.

Having never taken an art class before, she began designing earrings and other jewelry to sell in street markets to support her children. Aarin Burch said that as a child in San Francisco, she often liked to attach the wires to her mother’s earrings at the kitchen table.

Laurel and Aarin Burch. Thanks to Aarin Burch

Her mother’s life story was a true story from rags to riches. She started her business as a hippie on welfare and went on to become an internationally known artist and brand, worn by the likes of Cher and sold in department stores, where fans queued to get her autograph.

She also suffered from osteopetrosis, a painful bone disease, all her life. She often said that her mission in life was to bring joy through her work, even though she was often in pain. In her later life she lived in Novato, where she died.

Although Burch says she and her mother loved each other very much, being her daughter wasn’t always easy.

On the one hand, her mother was in touch with almost everyone she met; Burch constantly hears stories from people who had memorable interactions with her, saying things like “‘I met your mom and we had the most amazing connection. I felt she really saw me, she grabbed me right away.” Now that I’ve lost her, I love hearing those stories about her because they keep me so close to her,” Burch said.

But at the height of her fame, she was much less available to her own children.

“I often didn’t have access to her,” Burch said. “She started to become so famous that I had to send her a fax.”

But over time, mother and daughter recovered their relationship and became close again. Aarin has been helping to take care of her mother in recent years.

The younger Burch, now 56, a graduate of the California College of Arts and Crafts, found her passion in film, directing and producing both promotional and independent films, including videos about the Michigan Women’s Music Festival and HIV-positive women of color. For the past two decades, she’s been slowly working on a documentary about her mother, acknowledging that the pressure she puts on herself to get their relationship just right could slow the process down.

She is also known in Berkeley as a hip-hop dance and martial arts teacher; she taught hip-hop at the Downtown Berkeley YMCA for 23 years.

In 2012, she started the e-commerce site Laurel Burch Studios and envisioned what her mother’s legacy might be, running it from her Oakland apartment.

She admits that she had to learn everything on the job, as running a business was never her life plan.

Her brother Juaquim runs the international side of the company; Laurel Burch still has many fans around the world, especially in South America and Japan.

While some may think that Aarin and her brother inherited a lot of money from their mother’s estate, that’s not the case, she said. Her mother was an artist who didn’t always have the best business partners; moreover, there were long periods when she was unable to work because of her illness. Her stepfather was running the business when she died, Aarin said.

“What she left us was this incredible opportunity and it was priceless,” Burch said.

About five years ago, Aarin Burch moved the business from her Oakland apartment to a Berkeley warehouse and began holding warehouse sales several times a year. Opening a “flagship” store only happened if she found the right space; it was an architect’s studio. The sellers hoped the new tenant wouldn’t change the layout, which they didn’t. The display cases are filled with Burch items from the past and present, and Aarin uses the conference room to host small gatherings; whether they are nurses or young artists; she hopes in the future to be a center for encouraging young women artists and organizing other community gatherings in the space.

Ultimately, Burch wants people who visit the store to feel the same as the Laurel Burch coffee mug they’ve been using for 30 years.

“I want people to feel and share the warmth and amazing energy,” she said, as much of her mother’s line has always been about gift-giving. She hopes that after visiting the store, visitors will come away with a full Laurel Burch experience.

“She wasn’t making mugs for you to drink from. It was a physical embodiment of giving and creating, for someone to have that feeling with someone else,” Burch said. “It sounds so simple, but I run this business because it creates beauty in the world. There’s something about this particular art, because of its vibrancy and energy, that makes people feel connected and special and loved and seen.”

Laurel Burch Studios is located at 1345 Eighth St., Berkeley, open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Sunday.

Open Studios is November 18-21. There will be food, wine, giveaways, a raffle and the opportunity to view vintage items from the Laurel Burch collection dating back to the 1970s. There will also be live music, with Melanie DeMore performing at 2pm on Saturday, November 20 and Carol Garcia at 3 p.m. on Sunday, November 21.

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