For an eight-year period, starting in 1984, the colorful artwork of Varnette Patricia Honeywood adorned the set of The Cosby Show, the iconic sitcom reaching over 35 million viewers each week. After this breakthrough exposure, Honeywood’s creations would subsequently appear on the sets of such television hits as Golden Girls, A Different World, Amen, 227, Kids Say The Darndest Things, and Cosby. In the 1990s, Honeywood illustrated the Little Bill book series for beginning readers, a 12-book production by Bill Cosby. In 1996, Honeywood produced a collage for the dedication of the Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center at Spelman College.
Born to two elementary school teachers in Los Angeles on December 27, 1950, Honeywood was strongly encouraged in art and education from a young age. Unfortunately, she was also exposed to racial discrimination early on as her parents had moved from the Jim Crow South, where they’d been targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, to a mixed-raced neighborhood in Los Angeles where they were racially harassed. At age 12, the talented young artist began studying at the Chouinard Art Institute, a leading professional art school in Los Angeles later absorbed by CalArts.
In 1968, Honeywood—whose early artwork pulled from her grandparents’ rural community in Magnolia, Mississippi—entered Spelman College, where she studied history and worked toward becoming an educator like her parents. However, upon widespread encouragement from her art instructor, classmates, and fellow artists, Honeywood switched her major to art. Her move would prove transformative as the socially-conscious college student recognized the significant role the visual arts played in the civil rights era and the protests she participated in.
Graduating from Spelman in 1972, Honeywood earned a Master of Science degree in Education and her teaching credentials from the University of Southern California in 1974. Afterwards, she taught art and created arts and crafts programs while concentrating on the production of positive visual images for Black children. Inspired by such artists and mentors as Samella Lewis, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, William H. Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, and Ruth Waddy, the multitalented Honeywood went on to explore African American life and historicity through the varied media of paint, collage, lithograph, print, mixed-media, and monoprint.
In 1975, Honeywood and her sister, Stephanie, parlayed her increasingly popular art into a successful greeting card business celebrating Black life in the form of note cards, posters, and prints. These artistic cards would later catch the eye of Camille Cosby and further facilitate Honeywood’s ultimate status as an internationally renowned artist and illustrator. Her art would go on to grace galleries, museum exhibits, books, television programs, movies, buildings, schools, and other institutions.
A recipient of awards and recognitions too numerous to list, in 2002, Honeywood was honored by the University of Southern California Black Alumni Association and the school’s libraries with a Black History Month art exhibition entitled, “Trojans of Ebony Hue: Varnette P. Honeywood, Portrait of a Cultural Artist.”
Varnette Patricia Honeywood succumbed to cancer at age 59 in 2010.
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