B. LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, 1950
D. LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, 2010
Varnette Honeywood said, “What I paint are visual statements of Black lifestyles on canvas. I get my subjects from the people I see and the places I go within my community. I could be walking on the street, in the playground, or even in church. I’ll see something I feel should be recorded and I’ll say to myself, “Hey, that would look great on canvas.” Honeywood presented a view of Black family life that can be described as a radical normalizing, celebrating the life of her community in neighborhoods often pathologized by the media. Her work utilizes saturated colors and simplified forms, and often emphasizes the silhouette or black profile. She drew inspiration in her early work from the area around McComb, Mississippi, where her grandparents lived, and later, daily life in the neighborhoods around her in Los Angeles. At age 12 she began studying at the Choinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. She received her bachelor’s degree from Spelman College, Atlanta, GA in 1972. After earning a master’s degree in art education from the University of Southern California in 1974, she worked with USC’s Joint Educational Program (JEP). She became the director of their Art Outreach Program, which developed and administered art programs for local school children. Teaching young children influenced her own painting. While working full-time, Honeywood maintained a studio practice at night.
A trip to Lagos, Nigeria, in 1977 to attend FESTAC (also known as the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture) was significant experience for Honeywood. She connected to Black artists from around the world, and a legacy of African art, which she saw as characterized by robust, radiant color. In the 1980s, Honeywood began turning her paintings into prints and note-cards. With her sister Stephanie, a linguist and poet, Honeywood developed a successful greeting card business, “Black Lifestyles,” featuring her designs and illustrations. Camille Cosby discovered her work through the greeting cards. From 1984 to 1992, Honeywood’s work was popularized by its appearance on The Cosby Show; the paintings were prominently displayed in the rooms of the Huxtable home. In the 1990s, Honeywood created the characters and provided illustrations for the 12 titles in the series “Little Bill Books for Beginning Readers.” The books provided the basis for “Little Bill,” the animated series broadcast on CBS from 1999 to 2004, for which she served as a consultant. Honeywood’s work reached mass audiences through expanding collaborations across popular culture: book covers, magazine illustrations, film, and television. She achieved widespread fame. She is recognized by contemporary artists today for her significant contribution, helping to envision and shape Black visual culture.