Varnette Honeywood, American (1950 - 2010)

Varnette Honeywood

Varnette Honeywood is a nationally recognized artist who has successfully owned and managed a mail order art business "Black Lifestyles" for 15 years, marketing her paintings, limited and open edition prints and note cards and several other African American artists. She has illustrated several books and provided artwork for book covers. Her work has been used in numerous television sets, most notably "The Bill Cosby Show". She is collected by established art collectors in North America. and is a much sought after speaker, as she inspires a new generation of artists. Honeywood has a Masters of Education from the University of Southern California. 

 Throughout the 20th century, African American artists have used their creative powers to document and celebrate the historical record of their people. In the process, they have promoted an alternative perspective for younger generations harmed by stereotypical images of black life pervading American popular culture. For many decades following the Harlem Renaissance, a major approach to these objectives has involved genre paintings depicting African Americans in a wide variety of activities and settings. Cumulatively, these artworks have effectively countered the racist legacy that has despoiled American history.

Following her graduation from Spelman College, Honeywood returned to Los Angeles, where she obtained her masters degree in education from the University of Southern California. For five years, she worked at the Joint Educational Project, teaching art to largely minority students and designing various multicultural arts and crafts programs with her students. She also taught art at the central Juvenile Hall, an experience she remembers as extremely difficult. This background furthered her commitment to young people, fortifying her desire to provide positive visual images for black children, one of the central premises of her entire artistic career.

Her visit to Nigeria in 1977 had a profound effect upon her artistic work. Her African travels solidified her emotional linkage to her own ancestors and reinforced her view that African Americans must look to Africa as a source of identity, pride, and creativity.

From 1978 to the present, she has collaborated with her sister in creating and sustaining an art reproduction business based on her own work. Together, they produce and distribute notecards, posters, and similar products to the public, thereby ensuring a substantial audience for Honeywood’s artwork.

A recurring theme in Honeywood’s work is the vibrancy of black culture despite the barriers of racial oppression. Her 1981 watercolor entitled “Club Alabam: Down at the Dunbar” (Figure 2) combines strong composition, striking color, and significant historical content. The time frame of the painting dates from the 1940s, based on her parents’ vivid memories of their own young adulthood. A visual statement of the black lifestyle of the period, the effort highlights Central Avenue in Los Angeles, then the center of a thriving African American community. For Honeywood’s parents and thousands of others, Central Avenue was the place to congregate, the West Coast counterpart to the busy streets of New York’s Harlem. As the work reveals, people strolled the avenue, savoring the multiple delights of food, music, dance, and human conviviality.

In 1991, Varnette Honeywood produced a painting that simultaneously acknowledged the value of her own college education and the continuing vitality of historically black colleges generally. “The Groundbreaking” commemorates the new Camille Cosby Academic Center at Spelman College, a generous gift from Bill and Camille Cosby that houses the Art Museum, the Women’s Center, and the Library. Used as the cover for the Spelman Alumni News Magazine, the work depicts, from left to right, Camille Cosby, Spelman President Johnnetta Cole, the project architect, the chair of the Board of Trustees, a Spelman student, and Bill Cosby. Each participant in the ceremony is justifiably proud of the broader accomplishments of the college in providing education and opportunity for generations of African American students. That message has intimate personal significance for the artist, for without her own experiences at Spelman, she would not have achieved the well deserved professional artistic recognition she presently enjoys.

For centuries, the principle of “Kuumba” has enabled African Americans to work diligently to correct the regrettable misimpressions about their history, their culture, and their very humanity. Creative orators, political organizers, writers, artists, scholars, and many others over the years have used their talents to offer more realistic accounts of the black experience. The visual arts continue to play a powerful role in this process. Varnette Honeywood has undertaken the responsibility to extend the tradition of visual social commentary. Her purposeful and empathetic dedication to the rituals, traditions, hopes, and frustrations of her people assures her reputation as an artist of remarkable distinction and visibility.

-- By Paul Von Blum
Paul Von Blum teaches art and is the author of Critical Vision (South End Press). He acknowledges support for this article from the UCLA Institute of American Cultures and the Center for African American Studies.

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