Varnette Honeywood, an artist whose paintings adorned the walls of the set of “The Cosby Show” and whose strikingly colorful images depicted tender moments in black family life, has died. She was 59.
Honeywood died Sunday in a Los Angeles hospital after a two-year battle with cancer, one of her cousins, Jennell Allen, said Tuesday.
Raised in Los Angeles, Honeywood majored in fine arts at Spelman College in Atlanta, earned a master’s degree from the University of Southern California and worked at the Joint Educational Project, teaching art to minority students.
As a young artist in the 1970s, Honeywood began reproducing her bold acrylic paintings on greeting cards. It was these that caught the eye of Bill Cosby’s wife, Camille, and the couple started collecting her work and met Honeywood soon after.
Honeywood painted simple situations, such as a church picnic packed with congregants in their Sunday best or a mother combing her daughter’s hair. Bill Cosby said he was captivated by the affection between subjects in the paintings.
“I call her a true depictor of family love,” Cosby said. “When you see her art, you see someone you know who is exactly like that, and (the works) actually speak to you.”
Cosby praised Honeywood’s powerful use of color. Her subjects were often adults and children dressed in clothes that had been pared down to simple shapes and colored with vivid oranges, blues or reds.
“Those colors … she was absolutely brilliant,” Cosby said. “Forms and attitudes in human beings, she was able to capture them.”
Cosby featured several of her paintings on the walls of the set of his hit series, “The Cosby Show,” and he went on to collaborate with Honeywood on a series of books called “Little Bill,” which also became an animated television series.
In terms of visibility and reputation, Honeywood was one of the country’s most recognized black artists, said Paul Von Blum, emeritus professor of African American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“She had a very profound impact on the use and direction of contemporary African American art,” he said.
By celebrating the vibrant and exuberant traditions of black life, Honeywood broke from other black artists’ tendency to focus on the legacy of slavery and racism, Von Blum said.
Honeywood spent many years looking after her sick sister and ailing mother at home in Los Angeles. Both died several years ago, Von Blum said.
Source: The Associated Press.