Varnette Honeywood began studying art as a child at age 12, and it would be books for children that would bring her art to its widest audience.
Born in Los Angeles in 1950 to a pair of teachers who’d relocated from the deep South, Honeywood attended Atlanta’s Spelman University and was planning on becoming a history major before classmates and professors encouraged her to pursue art instead. After graduating, she moved back to California, attending the University of Southern California to obtain her teaching credentials.
Taking on the role of visual historian, she used brightly colored acrylics to paint scenes from everyday life, capturing black culture and traditions with a signature style she called “figurative abstraction.” She taught art and designed multicultural arts programs for public school use. In 1977, she visited Nigeria and would later cite the trip as a big influence on her work.
Not long after returning, she went into business with her sister, forming a company called Black Lifestyles that produced post-card versions of her paintings.
It was through these cards that Bill Cosby’s wife, Camille, first discovered Honeywood’s work. The Cosbys began collecting her paintings, and Bill invited her to contribute art for a little TV show he was working on. “The Cosby Show” became the biggest hit of the 1980s, running for eight seasons. Three of Honeywood’s paintings would adorn the Huxtables walls for the entirety of the show’s life, with others rotating through various episodes.
“She truly captured the feel of family love,” Bill Cosby told The Los Angeles Times. “Her work had depth and storytelling. She just knocked it out of the ballpark every time.”
Honeywood later collaborated with Cosby on the book series “Little Bill Books for Beginning Readers,” reaching a whole new generation and their parents.
Varnette Honeywood died Sept. 12, 2010 after a two-year battle with cancer. She was 59.