Varnette Honeywood

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Artist, Teacher, Illustrator

Born in Los Angeles, California 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, Stephanie Paula and Varnette Patricia Honeywood, knew of their difficult lives under 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-raced Los Angeles neighborhood. Attending Los Angeles High School, Varnette experienced her share of race-related social injustices.

In the 1980s, Honeywood met actor and author Bill Cosby and his wife Camille Cosby who had discovered Honeywood’s work on note-cards. A reproduction of her 1974 painting “Birthday” and many of her artworks were seen in every room of The Cosby Show that ran from 1984 until 1992 and was viewed by over 35 million viewers each week. Later her paintings and other artwork formed the backdrop for Cosby’s Kids Say the Darndest Things. Honeywood’s art career expanded and her notoriety was enhanced. Cosby had sparked Hollywood’s interest in Black art and Honeywood’s work subsequently appeared on other television series, including Amen, Golden Girls, A Different World, 227, and Cosby. Varnette’s artwork appeared in movies: Bustin’ Loose and Beauty Shop. In 1996, Honeywood created a collage for the dedication of the Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center at Spelman College.

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.” Honeywood’s illustrations were consistently praised for their color and energy and 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 on the program that was broadcast on Nick Jr., Viacom, CBS networks. Currently Little Bill can be seen in syndication on several networks. Little Bill won a 2001 Peabody Award, a 2004 Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Series, and a best-selling series, Oprah Book Club list. Varnette appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show as the illustrator of the Little Bill series.

Much of Honeywood’s art concerns the history of African 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.”

Honeywood’s art has appeared on various trade-book jackets, including all of Tina McElroy’s books as well as in textbooks, on film, and other media. She illustrated Mari Evan’s book on teenage pregnancy, released in 2005. Her work is included in numerous collections throughout the United States and Africa.

Ms. Honeywood was a 1971 graduate of Spelman College.

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