Varnette P. Honeywood Biography
Studied Art as a Child, Founded Black Lifestyles, Collaborated with Bill Cosby, Turned to Monoprinting
Well-known as an artist and illustrator, Varnette P. Honeywood is highly regarded for her use of color and light, patterns and textures. Her work—primarily paintings, collages, and prints—has received wide exposure in galleries and individual and group shows, as well as in books and on television. Honeywood is famous for her upbeat depictions of black family life. Carrying on the tradition of genre painting, a black artistic movement that followed in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance, her work portrays blacks in a range of settings, going about various activities, always stressing the colorful and creative aspects of African-American culture. Her work tells stories and communicates ideas and thoughts. Much of Honeywood's art concerns the history of black Americans, their sufferings and triumphs, and celebrates the strength and leadership of black women. Honeywood told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) that her art is sometimes described as "figurative abstraction."
Studied Art as a Child
Born in Los Angeles on December 27, 1950, Varnette P. Honeywood's close-knit family greatly influenced her life and work. Her parents, Lovie and Stepney Honeywood, were elementary school teachers who had moved to Los Angeles from Mississippi and Louisiana, respectively. Their daughters knew of their difficult lives under the Jim Crow laws of the South and their victimization by the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the racial harassment they experienced upon moving into a mixed-race Los Angeles neighborhood. By high school Honeywood had experienced her share of discrimination. She also was first exposed to black history during high school.
Varnette and her older sister Stephanie tested out the art projects that their parents devised for their classrooms. At the age of 12 Varnette began studying at the Chouinard Art Institute. Her early work was inspired by her grandparents' surroundings in Magnolia, Mississippi. The young artist painted the lemon and orange trees of Southern California within landscapes of rural Mississippi and Louisiana.
At Spelman College, a historically black women's college in Atlanta, Georgia, Honeywood planned to major in history and become a teacher; however, under the influence of her drawing teacher Joe Ross and the community of students and artists at Spelman, Honeywood switched her major to art. She began to develop her use of brilliant colors and complex designs. Kofi Bailey, a figurative artist whose work was infused with social consciousness, was her major influence at Spelman. Honeywood's participation in the Civil Rights Movement and other protests led her to realize the importance of the visual arts in the struggle for human rights.
Honeywood told CBB that among her major influences were William H. Johnson, her early mentor Simella Lewis, and Romare Bearden. She also credited Elizabeth Catlett, "particularly her political influence," and Jacob Lawrence "for his documentation of a particular aspect of one's history." Another mentor was Ruth Waddy, whose work Honeywood published as note-cards. Honeywood's portraits often emphasize the silhouette or black profile, an artistic expression dating from the 1960s.
Founded Black Lifestyles
Honeywood earned her bachelor's degree from Spelman in 1972 and earned her master's degree and teaching credentials from the University of Southern California (USC) in 1974. As a graduate student she taught art at Los Angeles's central juvenile hall. Following graduation Honeywood began teaching art and designing multicultural arts-and-crafts programs. Creating positive visual images for black children became one of her major goals.
Honeywood began turning her acrylic paintings into prints and note cards. In 1976 Honeywood and her sister—a linguist, writer, and poet—were among the first to enter into the "black-themed" art-greeting-card business. They founded Black Lifestyles to publish and distribute Honeywood's note cards, posters, and prints. As of 2005, the business had three components: a fine arts division for representing Honeywood's work; Black Lifestyles Classics to publish and distribute her art, particularly her reproductions and note cards; and an educational component that Honeywood described to CBB as supplying "any information to teachers, collectors, and the general public that we can provide."
In the 1980s, after quitting her job as director of an art outreach program at USC, Honeywood met actor and author Bill Cosby and his wife Camille. Camille Cosby had discovered Honeywood's work on note cards. Honeywood told Jacqueline Trescott of the Washington Post in 1997 that the Cosbys "came into my life at a time when I needed that confidence. People had been chipping away at my confidence." A reproduction of her 1974 painting "Birthday" was seen by millions of television viewers on the living-room wall of The Cosby Show that ran from 1984 until 1992. Later the painting formed the backdrop for Cosby's Kids Say the Darndest Things. Cosby had sparked Hollywood's interest in black art and Honeywood's work subsequently appeared on other television series including Amen and 227. In 1996 Honeywood created a collage for the dedication of the Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center at Spelman.
Collaborated with Bill Cosby
During the 1990s Honeywood illustrated a series of 12 books by Bill Cosby, the Little Bill Books for Beginning Readers. Honeywood told Trescott: "I take images from life and interpret them in scenes.… I always wanted to bring these characters to life. My challenge was to create a character and series of illustrations that would be in line with my artwork, that would be true to me." Although some of the books received mixed reviews, Honeywood's illustrations were consistently praised for their color and energy and their enrichment of the stories.
Little Bill was made into an animated television series based on Honeywood's illustrations. She designed the characters and contributed to and consulted for the program that was broadcast on the Nick Jr. and CBS networks. Little Bill won a 2001 Peabody Award and a 2004 Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Series. Trescott quoted Bill Cosby: "Certain art in our culture depicts a down feeling about how African American people are treated. They are poor and needy or need help in righting the wrongs. Varnette's work lets us not forget the personal joys."
Turned to Monoprinting
In 1990 Honeywood, while continuing to paint, began working extensively with monoprinting. She described this process to CBB as the use of "paint and drawing and stencils on top of a flat surface such as plexiglass or metal with paper on top and passing it through a press. This allows the artist to create layers and to add various things." Honeywood used a solvent to obtain a skin quality in her characters analogous to African scarification, an African cultural tradition that is similar to tattooing. Her new work also incorporated a sense of African rhythms and textiles. She told CBB that painting and monoprinting provide her with two different types of creations and experiences. "Adinkra Quilt," an exhibit of her watercolors and monoprints, was featured at the Los Angeles Museum of African American Art in 1994.
In 1993 Honeywood donated the artwork and signature logo for the Black Community Crusade for Children (BCCC). Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), was quoted by the Columbus Times of Columbus, Georgia: "We wanted to convey the ideas of love, warmth and unity which represent the mission of the BCCC. Varnette Honeywood was the first and obvious choice to create the BCCC logo." Honeywood also created the poster for the CDF's campaign for preventing teen pregnancy and for their "Beat the Odds" 1990 awards ceremony. She has created the art for various other organizations including Girls Inc., the National Association for Sickle Cell Disease, and the United States Labor Defense Fund. In 1990 Honeywood was commissioned to create a work for the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta. Entitled "Generations of Creative Genius," it depicted a dancer, a writer, a painter, and a musician in African dress.
Honeywood's stylized church scenes, known as "Inspirational Art," have been sold as fundraisers for black congregations. Many of these scenes include the traditional flamboyant church hats of black women. Honeywood told the Washington Post in 1997: "This is my mother's influence. My mother is very tall and she would wear those large hats and I can just remember looking up and through them."
Work Reflects Black History
Honeywood told CBB that she wants to "tell my personal story as an African-American woman during a particular time period. Like many black children in LA, I was taken back to Mississippi in the summers; I grew up in the Black Arts Movement; was exposed to black artists; and I see myself as a part of that legacy."
Much of Honeywood's art has a historical theme and she has used a variety of sources for her research. Her involvement with the National Conference of Artists enabled her to network with art historians and with other artists whose work utilizes black history. Honeywood told CBB that her frequent use of "symbols and images appropriated from other cultures" presents a special challenge since they must be used appropriately and she has to take particular care to "not use symbols and ideas that conflict."
Honeywood's art has appeared on various trade-book jackets, including all of Tina McElroy's books. She illustrated Mari Evans's book on teenage pregnancy, scheduled for release in 2005. Her work is included in numerous collections throughout the United States and Africa. In 2002 the USC Black Alumni Association and the USC libraries paid tribute to Honeywood with an art exhibition in honor of black history month. "Trojans of Ebony Hue: Varnette P. Honeywood, Portrait of a Cultural Artist" was a two-month long exhibition of her artwork, books, photos, quilting, ceramic works, and memorabilia.
Honeywood has remained close to her large extended family and served as the family caregiver. In 1990 her sister developed multiple sclerosis and eventually became severely disabled, inspiring Honeywood's "The Caregiver."
In addition to her numerous individual and group exhibitions, permanent collections of Honeywood's work are located at Golden State Mutual Life Insurance in Los Angeles and at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro. Honeywood's personal papers and work are being archived at the Armistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans. She told CBB that she "loves working with young artists" and in the future hopes to teach at a university and participate in more artist-in-residence programs. However "my main goal is to be a creative person and artist."
(With Brenda Joysmith) Shake It to the One That You Love the Best: Play Songs and Lullabies from Black Musical Traditions, Warner-Maddox, 1989.
The Black Reunion Family Cookbook, Fireside, 1991.
Let's Get the Rhythm of the Band: A Child's Introduction to Music from African-American Culture With History and Song, JTG, 1993.
The Best Way to Play, Scholastic, 1997.
The Meanest Thing to Say, Scholastic, 1997.
The Treasure Hunt, Scholastic, 1997.
Money Troubles, Scholastic, 1998.
Shipwreck Saturday, Scholastic, 1998.
Super-Fine Valentine, Scholastic, 1998.
The Day I Was Rich, Scholastic, 1999.
Hooray for the Dandelion Warriors! Scholastic, 1999.
My Big Lie, Scholastic, 1999.
One Dark and Scary Night, Scholastic, 1999.
The Worst Day of My Life, Scholastic, 1999.
The Day I Saw My Father Cry, Scholastic, 2000.
Black Women: Achievement Against the Odds, Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, 1983.
Traditions, She Who Learns Teaches: The Art of Varnette P. Honeywood, Spelman College, 1987.
VH4 Decade: The Art of Varnette P. Honeywood, Spelman College, 1992.
Voices, National Conference of Artists, Michigan Chapter, 1997.
International Review of African American Art, Summer, 2001.
St. James Guide to Black Artists, St. James Press, 1997.
Columbus Times (Columbus, GA), September 14, 1993, p. D1.
Sentinel (Los Angeles), February 21, 2002, p. B6.
Washington Post, November 30, 1997, p. G.01.
"Kuumba: The African American Art of Varnette Honeywood," Bernard Hoyes, http://bernardhoyes.com/vh-varnette-honeywood-paul-von-blum.htm (July 12, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Varnette P. Honeywood on July 29, 2005.
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