The Ancestors Summon Artist Varnette Honeywood, 60
This is a great shock. She died quietly on Sunday, September 12 after a two-year battle with cancer, says the National Black Arts Festival online.
Her cousin, Jenell Allen, later confirmed to the Associated Press on Tuesday that she died in an undisclosed Los Angeles hospital.
She was a graduate of Spelman College, and a member of one of the black sororities, Delta Sigma Theta. Hers was or will be a Baptist funeral. Her sister Stephanie died of multiple sclerosis in 2002; her beloved parents Lovie and Stepney died in 2007 and 2002, respectively. Because Honeywood produced works that reflected black family life, the sad event of her sister’s disability nonetheless resulted in yet another of Honeywood’s master works, The Caregiver, in 1995.
Varnette Honeywood’s art became famous and mainstream when it was part of the background to the home of the Huxtables on The Cosby Show in the Eighties. Her art later graced the covers of the novels of Terry McMillan, and later those of Tina McElroy. The character, Little Bill, from the cartoon of the same name that ran on CBS on Saturday mornings is her creation, as were the books and dolls from the series.
Bill Cosby owns many of Honeywood’s originals. He and his wife Camille became acquainted with her work through her greeting cards.
I remember how she started; she moved back home to live with her schoolteacher parents in L.A., while she and sister Stephanie, a poet, built up their careers. They collaborated in creating and selling greeting cards and postcards for African Americans. Her studio, I believe, was in their garage.
I received an email this morning about the loss of Varnette P. Honeywood. I have a bio that I’m pasting below for those who would like more information on this humble, amazing artist. Her work is probably most known for appearing on the Cosby Show. I met Varnette back in the early 90’s at the Crenshaw Plaza’s yearly African American Fine Art Exhibition. This was back when the exhibition featured some of the most well respected artists we have, from Jacob Lawrence, to Samella Lewis, Elizabeth Catlett and John Biggers. Varnette stuck out for me because she was so open about her process and full of so much advice for a young annoying kid who loved to draw pictures. I would go back every year (until leaving for college) and always check in with her, showing her new work and always learning something new from her practical wisdom. I left for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and ended up living there for 11 years. Once I returned to Los Angeles, one of the first artists I wanted to connect with was Varnette. I had her phone number from all those years ago, but didn’t use it. I guess as a grown man, I was hesitant to be that annoying little kid again. I wish I had. As a professional artist I now try to use two things I took from her when I’m approached by anyone from collectors to “annoying” kids who like to draw. I try to be humble, and I’m always open about any advice which could help them in their pursuit of the arts. My grandmother always said “give me my flowers while I’m living”. Make sure if there is an artist you’re hesitant about bugging, you don’t make the same mistake I did. You may just make their day, and you may just learn something. God bless.
I also own a Honeywood print of a young gentleman visiting his lady love at her parents’ home, which is said to be rare; and two others that are more mainstream. All are in storage right now. I wish my things were around me right now.
The girls in Rap Street reminded me of my two sides: I attended Catholic as well as public schools until I was fourteen. There’s the street side of me and the snotty, uppity side of me as well. There was a difference and estrangement between black Catholic school kids and black public school kids; I don’t know whether it continues today, but it was there during the Sixties. They occupied different worlds. It’s even crazier if you’ve seen both sides. Like how dare I read a book to get grades while I “tightened up” to Archie Bell and The Drells. That’s why I bought it. It reminded me of me.
Honeywood’s art may seem nostalgic to some people, but they actually happen in real life. Young men coming to call on their girlfriends. Women oiling their children’s scalps (with Dixie Peach). Women cooking over the stove. People going to church. Nothing has really altered these simple events. As time went on, it seemed her work became even more quilted, as if we were all put together with scraps and pieces and DNA from so many sources.
Honeywood’s personal papers and work have been given to Tulane University.
(I’ll post additions when I have further details about the circumstances of her death. I just loved her work. I am awaiting something from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Although I never met her, I loved her, and I am sure that everyone who came across her work loved her as well.)
- Adrienne Crew writes a tribute to Honeywood at L.A. Observed.
- KPCC in Southern California announces her death and her last exhibit.
- Bill Cosby talks about Honeywood’s impact.