Varnette Honeywood

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"Rap Street" by Varnette Honeywood.

Born in Los Angeles, California on December 27, 1950, Varnette P. Honeywood’s close-knit family greatly influenced her life and work. Her parents, Lovie and Stepney Honeywood, were elementary school teachers who had moved to Los Angeles from Mississippi and Louisiana, respectively. Their daughters, Stephanie Paula and Varnette Patricia Honeywood, knew of their difficult lives under Jim Crow laws of the South and their victimization by the Ku Klux Klan as well as the racial harassment they experienced upon moving into a mixed-raced Los Angeles neighborhood. Attending Los Angeles High School, Varnette experienced her share of race-related social injustices.

Varnette and her older sister Stephanie tested out the art projects that their parents devised for their classrooms. At the age of 12, Varnette began studying at the Chouinard Art Institute. She created art for 47 years. Varnette was a creative artist who had a passion for art that compelled her to constantly create art. Her early work was inspired by her grandparents’ surrounding in Magnolia, Mississippi. The young artist painted the lemon and orange trees of Southern California within landscapes of rural Mississippi and Louisiana.

At Spelman College, an historically Black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia, Honeywood planned to major in history and become a teacher; however, under the influence of her drawing instructor Joe Ross and the community of students and artists at Spelman, Honeywood switched her major to art. She began to develop her use of brilliant colors and complex designs. Kofi Bailey, a figurative artist whose work was infused with social consciousness, was a major influence at Spelman. Honeywood’s participation in the Civil Rights Movement and other protests led her to realize the importance of visual arts in the struggle for human rights.

Honeywood earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Art from Spelman in 1972, her Master of Science degree in Education, and her teaching credentials from the University of Southern California (USC) in 1974. She earned an Honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts from Spelman College in 2005. As a graduate student, she taught art at the Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall. Following graduation, Honeywood began teaching art and designing multicultural arts-and-crafts programs. Creating positive visual images for Black children became one of her major goals.

Well-known nationally and internationally renowned artist and illustrator, Varnette P. Honeywood, is highly regarded for her use of color and light, patterns and textures. Her work, primarily paintings, collages, prints mixed-medium art, lithograph, serigraph, silk screen, monoprinting, oil on canvas, watercolor, watercolor with gold leaf, ceramic tile, acrylic on paper, acrylic on canvas, pen and sketch, and pen and ink, has received wide exposure in galleries and individual and group shows as well as in books and on television. Honeywood is famous for her upbeat depictions of Black family life. Carrying on the tradition of genre painting, a Black artistic movement that followed in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance, her work portrays Blacks in a range of settings, going about various activities, always stressing the colorful and creative aspects of African-American culture. Her work tells stories and communicates ideas and thoughts.

Much of Honeywood’s art concerns the history of African Americans, their sufferings and triumphs, and celebrates the strength and leadership of Black women. Honeywood told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) that her art is sometimes described as “figurative abstraction.”

Honeywood told CBB that among her major influences were William H. Johnson. Her early mentors were Samella Lewis and Romare Bearden. She also credited Elizabeth Catlett, “particularly her political influence,” and Jacob Lawrence, “for his documentation of a particular aspect of one’s history.” Another mentor was Ruth Waddy, whose work Honeywood published as note-cards. Honeywood’s portraits often emphasize the silhouette or black profile, an artistic expression dating from the 1960s.

Cecil and Miriam Fergerson served as her mentors and curators. Also, the Reverend Greg Pitts served as a curator as well.

Honeywood began turning her acrylic paintings into prints and note-cards. In 1975, Honeywood and her sister Stephanie, a linguist, writer, and poet, were among the first to enter into the “Black-themed” art-greeting-card business. They founded a successful business, Black Lifestyles Fine Art, to publish and distribute Honeywood’s note-cards, posters, and prints. By 2005, the business had three components: a fine arts division, representing Honeywood’s work; Black Lifestyles Classics, publishing and distributing her art, particularly her reproductions and note-cards; and an educational component that Honeywood described to CBB as supplying “any information to teachers, collectors, and the general public that we can provide.”

In the 1980s, after quitting her job as Director of Art Outreach Program at USC, Honeywood met actor and author Bill Cosby and his wife Camille Cosby who had discovered Honeywood’s work on note-cards. A reproduction of her 1974 painting “Birthday” and many of her artworks were seen in every room of The Cosby Show that ran from 1984 until 1992 and was viewed by over 35 million viewers each week. Later her paintings and other artwork formed the backdrop for Cosby’s Kids Say the Darndest Things. Honeywood’s art career expanded and her notoriety was enhanced. Cosby had sparked Hollywood’s interest in Black art and Honeywood’s work subsequently appeared on other television series, including Amen, Golden Girls, A Different World, 227, and Cosby. Varnette’s artwork appeared in movies: Bustin’ Loose and Beauty Shop. In 1996, Honeywood created a collage for the dedication of the Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center at Spelman College.

During the 1990s, Honeywood illustrated a series of 12 books by Bill Cosby, the Little Bill books for beginning readers. Honeywood told Trescott: “I take images from life and interpret them in scenes. I always wanted to bring these characters to life. My challenge was to create a character and series of illustrations that would be in line with my artwork that would be true to me.” Honeywood’s illustrations were consistently praised for their color and energy and enrichment of the stories.

Little Bill was made into an animated television series based on Honeywood’s illustrations. She designed the characters and contributed to and consulted on the program that was broadcast on Nick Jr., Viacom, CBS networks. Currently Little Bill can be seen in syndication on several networks. Little Bill won a 2001 Peabody Award, a 2004 Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Series, and a best-selling series, Oprah Book Club list. Varnette appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show as the illustrator of the Little Bill series.

Trescott quoted Bill Cosby: “Certain art in our culture depicts a down feeling about how African- American people are treated. They are poor and needy or need help in righting the wrongs. Varnette’s work lets us not forget the personal joys.”

In 1990, Honeywood, while continuing to paint, began working extensively with monoprinting. She described this process to the CBB as the use of “paint and drawing and stencils on top of a flat surface such as plexiglass or metal with paper on top and passing it through a press. This allows the artist to create layers and to add various things.” Honeywood used a solvent to obtain a skin quality in her characters analogous to African scarification, as African cultural tradition that is similar to tattooing. Her work also incorporated a sense of African rhythms and textiles. She told CBB that painting and monoprinting provide her with the different types of creations and experiences. “Adinkra Quilt,” an exhibit of her watercolors and monoprints, was featured at the Los Angeles Museum of African American Art in 1994, and exhibited at Watts Towers.

Honeywood also created the art for various other organizations, including Girls Inc., the National Association for Sickle Cell Disease, and the United States Labor Defense Fund. In 1990, Honeywood was commissioned to create a work for the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta entitled “Generations of Creative Genius.” It depicted a dancer, a writer, a painter, and a musician in African dress.

Honeywood had remained close to her large extended family and served as the family caregiver. Also, in 1990, her sister Stephanie developed multiple sclerosis and eventually became severely disabled, inspiring Honeywood’s “The Caregiver.”

In 1993, Honeywood donated the artwork and signature logo for the Black Community Crusade for Children (BCCC). Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), was quoted by the Columbus Times of Columbus, Georgia: “We wanted to convey the ideas of love, warmth and unity, which represent the mission of the BCCC. Varnette Honeywood was the first and obvious choice to create the BCCC logo.” Honeywood also created the poster for the CDF’s campaign for preventing teen pregnancy and for their “Beat the Odds” 1990 awards ceremony.

Honeywood’s stylized church scenes, known as “inspirational art” have been sold as fund-raisers for Black congregations. Many of these scenes include the traditional flamboyant church hats of Black women. Honeywood told the Washington Post in 1997: “This is my mother’s influence. My mother is very tall and she would wear those large hats, and I can just remember looking up and through them.”

Honeywood told CBB that she wants to “tell my personal story as an African-American woman during a particular time period. Like many Black children in LA, I was taken back to Mississippi in the summers. I grew up in the Black Arts Movement and was exposed to Black artists. I see myself as a part of that legacy.”

Much of Honeywood’s art has an historical theme, and she has used a variety of sources for her research. Her involvement with the National Conference of Artists enabled her to network with art historians and with artists whose work utilizes Black history. Honeywood told CBB that her frequent use of “symbols and images appropriated from other cultures” presents a special challenge since they must be used appropriately and she has to take particular care to “not use symbols and ideas that conflict.”

Honeywood’s art has appeared on various trade-book jackets, including all of Tina McElroy’s books as well as in textbooks, on film, and other media. She illustrated Mari Evan’s book on teenage pregnancy, released in 2005. Her work is included in numerous collections throughout the United States and Africa. In 2002, the USC Black Alumni Association and the USC libraries paid tribute to Honeywood with an art exhibition in honor of Black History Month. “Trojans of Ebony Hue: Varnette P. Honeywood, Portrait of a Cultural Artist” was a two-month long exhibition of her artwork, books, photos, quilting, ceramic works, and memorabilia.

She told CBB that she “loves working with young artists” and in the future hopes to teach at a university and participate in more artist-in-residence programs. However, She states: “My main goal is to be a creative person and artist.”

Varnette Patricia Honeywood stated, “My art is my work and my life.”

About Pickens Museum

Osage Warrior in the Enemy Camp by Sculptor John Free. Seeking to attain his tribe's highest war honor by touching his enemy. This action among indigenous peoples is called "Counting Coup".
Osage Warrior in the Enemy Camp by Sculptor John Free. “Osage Warrior in the Enemy Camp” is a bronze created by Osage Artist John Free. The bronze, eight feet high and twelve feet long) was enlarged to 1-1/4 life size through the efforts of John Free of the Bronze Horse foundry in Pawhuska and Hugh Pickens. Pictured (L-R): Hugh Pickens, Executive Director of Pickens Museum and Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear of the Osage Nation.
Three Faces of the Pioneer Woman by Artist Daniel Pickens. “Three Faces of the Pioneer Woman” is a mural painted by fine artist Daniel Pickens. Daniel was born in Lima, Peru in 1974 and is currently living in Stockholm, Sweden. This mural is at our Ponca City location.
“"War Club" by Native Artist Yatika Starr Fields was recently acquired from Garth Greenam Gallery to Pickens Museum. Personal and social struggle have long been integral to the artist’s practice. After joining the Water Protectors at the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, Fields increasingly centered the Indigenous history of hope and struggle in his work, particularly in his studio practice. In his 2017 series, Tent Metaphor Standing Rock, Field recovered tents after the infamous February 22, 2017 police raid on the protesters. The artist recombined the vivid tenting material—the mainstay of middle-class camping holidays that has become an icon of homelessness and protest movements—into traditional Indigenous patterns, anti-pipeline slogans, and into dynamic, compelling abstract compositions. As in his graffiti works, Fields blurs the line between abstraction and representation, creating stylistic compositions out of recognizable elements, and setting them against dynamic, swirling fields of color and twisting forms. The works blur the boundaries between political polemic and abstraction, between distress, resistance and hope.
Three Faces of the Pioneer Woman by Artist Daniel Pickens. Our mural "The Three Faces of the Pioneer Woman" is located in City Central at our Ponca City location.
Doctor Pickens Museum of Turquoise Jewelry and Art. Pickens Museum displays art works at NOC Tonkawa campus. Pictured (L-R): Dr. Cheryl Evans, NOC President, Hugh Pickens, Executive Director of Pickens Museum, and Sheri Snyder, NOC Vice President for Development and Community Relations. (photo by John Pickard/Northern Oklahoma College) This art is at our Tonkawa location
Native American Artist Yatika Starr Fields Completes Mural for Pickens Museum.
The World's Largest Naja. Future location of Pickens Museum on Route 60 and "U" Street West of Ponca City
Architectural Renderings of Pickens Museum.
Aerial View from East of Future location of Pickens Museum along Route 60 at "U" Street West of Ponca City
Display of Turquoise Jewelry.
Drum player by Allan Houser. This stone carving is part of the collection at Pickens Museum.
"Red Man" by Native American Artist Fritz Scholder. Pickens Museum Director Hugh Pickens on right.
Osage Warrior in the Enemy Camp.
Native American Jewelry Artist Tonya Rafael with a silver frame she created to honor my wife Sr. S.J. Pickens. My wife and Tonya worked together over the years creating new jewelry art pieces. My wife had an eye for color and would often design a spectacular piece and ask Tonya to execute it for her. A skilled silversmith, Tonya would sometimes stay in our guest house, set up a workshop, and work for days at a time on a Squash Blossom, Bolo, or Bracelet my wife commissioned. The piece is a silver picture frame that Tonya cut out of thick silver plate. Around the edge of the picture frame are 95 small turquoise stones. In the top is a large spiny oyster stone in the shape of a heart. The frame contains a photo that Tonya took of my wife a few years ago. Dr. Pickens is wearing one of her favorite outfits and if you look closely you can see a special squash blossom and necklace that Tonya created for my wife. In the bottom of the frame is an inscription.
Native American Artist Jolene Bird. Jolene Bird is an accomplished artist who learned her craft from her grandfather over 20 years ago. Jolene makes her jewelry in the tradition of the Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico. This is a Fender Stratocaster guitar onto which Jolene has attached pieces of Kingman and Sonoran Turquoise highlighted with Jet. The stars are in Abalone, Mother of Pearl, Pipestone, Yellow Serpentine, and Spiny Oyster. The artistry in this piece is simply breathtaking and has to be seen to be believed. Consider that this is a three dimensional mosaic, a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle if you will. Jolene told me that each individual piece of turquoise had to be cut, shaped, and ground down to fit perfectly with the other pieces. Each individual piece probably took six to eight hours to produce and there are literally hundreds of pieces covering the guitar.
American Indian by Paul Manship This piece at Pickens Museum is the only known existing copy of this sculpture.
Painting by Peruvian Artist Josue Sanchez. Photo Credit: Hugh Pickens Pickens Museum

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