Artist and businesswoman, Varnette Patricia Honeywood, died September 12 in Los Angeles of cancer. Born December 27, 1950, in Los Angeles, she was a graduate of Spelman College and the University of Southern California. She taught art and administered art programs before partnering with her older sister, Stephanie, to establish a series of publishing and distribution companies (Black Lifestyles Today, Black Lifestyles Fine Art, and Black Lifestyles Classics). Celebrating themes of family, spirituality, and community, her colorful works, depicted cultural traditions and told the stories of the black experience in America. Her paintings, prints and collages have been exhibited in major galleries and museums, and adorn the covers of several adult and children’s books.
Varnette Honeywood wears an apron, at home with her mother (Center seated) and family on August 30, 2003.
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.
Legacy: inheritance of wealth, stature, destiny.
We dedicate this effort to our parents, Lovie Varnette Allen and Stepney Robinson of Mississippi and Louisiana.
Your love of our family, your integrity, dignity, pride-and
Courage continues to inspire us.
Thank you for cherishing the wealth and traditions passed
to you and diligently guiding us as we learned them.
Africans worship their elders and their ancestors. Every
Culture, for that matter, does.
The beginning of knowing who we are is to know where we
Came from. This is the key to knowing where we are, why
we are here and realizing the reality of this moment.
So thru the eyes and words of elders and ancestors, we know our history.
We thank God for you, Varnette. Thank you for sharing, for caring, and for continuing the story-telling of our people. We will all miss you.
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.)