What made the work of internationally known visual artist Varnette Patricia Honeywood so special was that she created images that connected African Americans with their roots.
So, if you saw the image of women in the kitchen hovering around the stove and pressing their hair, or two women whispering to one another sitting on a church pew, you immediately said “I remember that.”
“She documented our history in a loving way, even when we didn’t love ourselves. The way she presented it, helped us appreciate it even more,” explains Rosie Lee Hooks, director of the Watts Towers Art Center, who met Honeywood in the early 1990s, and said she felt they were like family. “She was like my sister.”
“. . . I saw her work before I saw her, and I was impressed by the way she handled materials and the stories she told through her work. It was so close to embracing the way I grew up in North Carolina; the way we are in general as a people. It was a lot of the things we talk about, that we feel. She had a way with visual narrative,” added artist John Outterbridge, who met Honeywood shortly after she graduated from college.
Cecil Fergerson, who met the Watts native, when she was still attending college at Spelman, remembers that Honeywood was creating her images in the early 1970s.
“. . . (Most) people weren’t into Black then. They had heard Martin Luther King, but didn’t necessarily believe,” explained Fergerson, a noted arts advocate and curator.
“There was no William Grant Still, California African American Museum or Museum of African American Art. There weren’t any places that really showed (Black art),” remarked Miriam Fergerson, who along with her husband Cecil became fast friends with young Honeywood. They occasionally traveled to art shows together, and Miriam recalls that first meeting with actor Bill Cosby.
“I went with her to take her work to Bill Cosby’s home; it was about 1982 or 1983, before the airing of the (show). It was in Pacific Palisades, and we had 15 or 20 different paintings we had brought,” recalls Miriam. “Mr. Cosby asked if we had eaten, and when we said no, he had his man Friday add a setting for us. Then Clarence Williams III, Bill Cosby, Varnette and myself sat laughing, talking and eating.”
Afterwards, Cosby took them on a tour of his home, including showing the numerous Honeywood already pieces in his collection. Then he looked at the work the two women had brought.
“He selected about 10 pieces, and when we left he gave us a bag with money in it. When we got home, we sat on the bed and pulled it all out. It was in hundreds; it was about $10,000, and we just sat there giggling thinking about the fact that we were riding around in the car with that much money in a bag.”
That humbleness was one of the things that impressed Hooks about Honeywood and set the artist apart.
“She was a woman, so it was a big coup for her to do the work she did and represent like she did. In the art world in general, she was a genius among us. But from the art and human point of view.
She was a regular person. She wasn’t high and mighty and untouchable and hiding out. She was very accessible but also very talented in the work she did and the history she documented,” explained Hooks about the accomplishments she thinks Honeywood made.
In addition to helping African Americans gain an appreciation for their distinctive culture, Honeywood was one of the first Black artists to take a distinctively business approach to promoting and selling her art. She and her late sister Stephanie set up the company Black Lifestyles and marketed and sold her note cards, reproductions and prints through this entity.
The artist also thought it was vitally important to mentor other female artists, and according to the Fergersons among those she helped were Robin Strayhorn, Lakeeta Howard and Asungi.
“One of the things I really remember above her art work was her love of her sister and family,”
recalls artists/photographer Willie Middlebrook, who had known Honeywood for about 30 years; he first met her at a Watts Summer Festival curated by Cecil Fergerson. “When her sister (Stephanie) came down with multiple sclerosis . . . Varnette brought her everywhere she went. She dealt with everything that needed to be dealt with. She was amazing. That type of dedication is what came out in her work. What also came out in her work was that feeling of respect for her people.”
In a final memorial to Honeywood designed to carry on her legacy, Hooks at the Watts Towers jokingly noted that she badgered the artist into doing a show.
“I knew Varnette was ill, and I had been after her for a couple of years to do a one-woman show. I wanted to get something up while she was here, and I sort of forced her last April.””
The result is an exhibit of the adinkra symbols Honeywood created based on the study of such Ghanian symbols.
The exhibit views at the Watts Towers Art Center through Jan. 9, and will close that day with a program celebrating Honeywood’s life.
Funeral services were held Friday for Varnette Patricia Honeywood, who died of complications from cancer Sept. 12. She was 59. The Watts native was preceded in death by her father Stepney Robinson Honeywood, her mother Lovie Varnette Allen Honeywood and her sister Stephanie Paula Honeywood.
She is survived by three aunts–Betty Allen of New Orleans, E. Verna Honeywood Tulley and Carrie Onita Richard Allen of Los Angeles.