The influential artist Varnette P. Honeywood passed away in Los Angeles on Sunday after a long illness. A native of Los Angeles, she was an accomplished painter, illustrator and teacher. She graduated from Spelman College in 1972 after attending Los Angeles-era schools and obtained her Masters in Education and a teaching credential from U.S.C. As a graduate student she taught art at juvenile hall and launched a career as an art teacher and curriculum designer for multi-cultural arts-and-crafts programs.
In the 80s, her vibrant, quilt-like style received worldwide recognition after Bill Cosby personally selected her 1974 painting "Birthday" to decorate the Huxtable living room on the Cosby Show. Subsequently, television series such as Amen and 227 also made use of her paintings. Indeed, Little Bill, the animated television series was based on Honeywood's illustrations and she designed the characters and contributed to the program.
News of Ms. Honeywood's passing circulated via email and Facebook amongst many of her friends and admirers. Most of the online tributes have emphasized her kind and generous nature.
She was always upbeat and gracious during the relatively short time that I knew her. I met her in 2008 while volunteering at the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum in Culver City. Ms. Honeywood had donated some books to the library and I had the honor of going to her house in the West Adams district to sort and retrieve them. She was so welcoming and open as we sat in her bright living room, filled with paintings and furniture. We chattered about books, Los Angeles history, growing up as the offspring of elementary school teachers and our common experiences in the art licensing business. Ms. Honeywood and her sister created one of the first greeting card businesses focused on the African American lifestyle.
The last time I saw her was at the Huntington Library reception for the opening of the Central Avenue and Beyond exhibit in October 2009. That was such a happy day and it pains me to realize that both Avery Clayton, co-curator of the exhibit and President of the Clayton Library, and Ms. Honeywood are no longer with us. Avery Clayton died suddenly last November. After running into one another in the exhibit hall, Ms Honeywood remembered me and was just as friendly as could be. She pulled me over to look at a handwritten letter by pioneering black aviatrix Bessie Coleman and exclaimed at the quality of some of the items on display.
She was always eager to share new discoveries and teach what she knew. It's no surprise that a catalogue of her work is entitled Traditions: She Who Learns Teaches. She had a profound influence on so many people in Los Angeles as an artist, educator and mentor and will be missed.
Photograph of Varnette Honeywood by Mark Steven Greenfield used with the permission of the artist
Celebration of Life for Varnette P. Honeywood (viewing)
Where: Inglewood Cemetery Mortuary
When: Thursday, September 23 from 3:00 pm to 8:00 pm
Funeral Services for Varnette P. Honeywood
Where: Messiah Baptist Church
When: Friday, September 24 from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm
Messiah Baptist Church
4500 West Adams Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90016