In August of 2003, I visited Varnette and her mother in their Los Angeles home, where I spent an entire afternoon listening to Varnette detail her family’s rich history in Louisiana and Mississippi. Her parents, Lovie and Stepney Robinson Honeywood, were school teachers who migrated to Los Angeles from Louisiana and Mississippi. She shared her love for history and the journey of her family through photographs, letters, and documents. As Varnette described the business operations of her Black Lifestyles Companies, I discovered how she and Stephanie succeeded in getting positive images of black art into small galleries and bookstores. Attributing much of the business success to Stephanie’s organizational skills, she showed me how they packed and shipped orders for posters and note cards across the country. I listened, as she recalled Bill Cosby’s request for samples of her work. After loading her car with paintings and driving to meet with him, she said, “I was so surprised when he purchased everything”. That was the beginning of their partnership, which introduced her work to TV audiences. Several of Varnette’s paintings were included in the set decoration for The Cosby Show. She also partnered with Bill Cosby to illustrate twelve books in his award winning Little Bill Books for Beginning Readers.
On that August afternoon, I experienced authentic southern hospitality alive and well in Los Angeles. Varnette and Lovie prepared the most wonderful meal, and a delicious pastry called monkey bread. At the end of a long day of going through papers and assisting with dinner, Varnette carefully signed posters and inscribed a set of the Little Bill books for the Amistad Research Center. Then, with great care, she selected poems and writings from her sister, Stephanie, a gifted poet and author who died of multiple sclerosis in 2002. We talked of possible educational programs and an exhibition of her work at the Amistad Research Center. The following year, I had the opportunity to treat Varnette to a meal in my home with art historian Dr. Regenia A. Perry, and was introduced to Varnette’s New Orleans’ cousins. The following selection from Stephanie Honeywood’s writings, now preserved in the Varnette Honeywood Papers, highlights the legacy of Varnette Patricia Honeywood.
Posted by Brenda Billips Square
(Top image courtesy of Spelman College Archives. Bottom image courtesy of Brenda Billips Square. Images may not be reproduced without permission.)