SAN DIEGO — Travels to exotic countries fuel her imagination, but the wildly colored lions, birds and masks that Laurel Burch translates into jewelry designs emerge from a fantastic world where mythical animals prowl.
"People tease me because I live in my own fantasy world. My drawings don't come from outside myself," Burch said. "Inside of me I have all these friends and characters. They come out on paper so I can share them. That is my motivation in designing. I see wonderful, exotic, happy things."
In the 1970s, the artist's cloisonne earrings attracted attention with contemporary designs of stylized cats, long-beaked birds and sculptured flowers. Today she creates design collections, and Laurel Burch Inc. has grown to a $12-million dollar business.
A show to display her latest collection will open at The Gallery at the Bazaar del Mundo tonight; Burch will attend the reception from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
A former flower child who assembled jewelry of found objects in the 1960s, Burch now creates original designs for earrings, bracelets, necklaces, tote bags, sweat shirts, mugs and paper products that are found in about 5,000 stores, museums and galleries nationwide.
With her new "Tasai Collection," Burch will bring one-of-a-kind bracelets hand-painted in her Sausalito studio, lacquered boxes, original limited-edition posters that she will sign tonight, and brightly painted wooden animals and masks carved by craftsmen in Bali.
The ebullient artist began making jewelry of beads and yarn as gifts for her friends in San Francisco in the 1960s, and was selling her craft in small stores when she was invited to China in 1971. It was there she discovered cloisonne.
"I started designing right there in my hotel room. It was to be the main focal point for the next 10 years. I made frequent trips back and forth to China and introduced a contemporary form of cloisonne to the American market. It was innovative--a whole new concept in jewelry in this country."
She expanded to work on cast metals and wood, and to include spinoff products on paper, porcelain and fabric.
Burch has refined her designs as she has matured, but the 40-year-old artist who was recently voted San Francisco's "Entrepreneur of the Year" has not abandoned her folk art roots or lost her childlike wonder.
"I love birds and animals--things that are living. Much of my work is some representation of the life spirit in things. And while they are mythical and from my imagination, they are almost always living things."
She said she has watched her animals become more elegant, but no less flamboyant, as she has grown older. "I don't want my work to lose that spirit. I still consider myself to be able to speak the language in both the folk art and the refined world."
A former San Dieguito High School student who later dropped out of high school in Los Angeles with the vision of becoming a vagabond and "going around singing and playing my guitar," Burch recalls selling her craft on San Francisco streets and days on welfare. When she won the award for top entrepreneur she thought it was a mistake.
"I am overwhelmed with the good fortune that I am appreciated for doing what I love to do. I have got to give it back in some form of inspiration. That is why I take the time to talk to people. I have hit rock bottom again and again, but kept moving forward.
"People need to see an example of someone who stuck it out. A huge specter of things developed in such a short period of time, I feel very humble about it."
Despite the growing multimillion-dollar business, Burch continues to do all her own designing, travels to the Far East to oversee production and has begun making personal appearances around the country.
She does not have a design team, and the tools Burch draws with in her studio are no more sophisticated than those she used at a Haight-Ashbury kitchen table 20 years ago. "I still don't use a compass," Burch said. She works in her Sausalito studio or in foreign locales such as Bali, Indonesia, China and Mexico.
"I have never lost my perspective. No matter how successful my company is, its purpose is bearing my art forth. I have to be strong to remember that," Burch said. "The company still supports the designer and artist. And it makes it possible to explore other categories."
Burch is constantly looking for new applications for her designs, which number in the hundreds. "It is fun to find other ways to express my art--I don't need another commercial venture."
In addition to the jewelry and accessories bearing her mask-like faces, abstract designs and trademark animals, she produces dance shows with live birds and costumed performers at gallery openings. She sees her work eventually spreading to bed sheets, dinnerware and clothing apparel.
"I am ecstatic about doing other things. I would imagine I would always love to do jewelry, but I am so excited about doing fashion and other environmental art things. I can't help it--when I design a pair of earrings, it comes down to that excitement--and my next thought is: I wish I could design the dress she could wear this with."