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Artist Highlight: Varnette Honeywood

By Larissa Ramey, Content Strategy Intern

Abstract collage depicting five Black figures in colorful clothing.
Family Time, 1984, Varnette Honeywood, Fabric and collage on board, 40x30 in., Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2021.35

Dr. Varnette P. Honeywood (1950-2010) is a well-known artist and illustrator, becoming renowned as the “Queen of African American Art”. Her work Family Time, a fabric and collage on board will be on view from the Crystal Bridges collection in January 2024. Honeywood’s work is sometimes coined as “figurative abstraction”. The main subjects of her work depict Black family life, and a range of the colorful and creative aspects of African American culture is shared through visual storytelling. Honeywood stated, “My art is my work and my life.”

Honeywood’s artistic practice as an artist and illustrator made her use of color, light, patterns, and textures add depth to her works. Her work, primarily paintings, collages, and prints of mixed-medium assemblages spread to printmaking and book covers, and thanks to the recognition and collection efforts of Camille and Bill Cosby, her art hit the big screen. Family Time depicts Honeywood’s desire to create visual images that positively impact Black children. Since she had a signature style that was recognized from her book covers to galleries and television shows, her use of vibrant materials and storytelling invokes the time is now to share the joys of Black life and culture in America.

She carried on the tradition of genre painting, a Black artistic movement that followed in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance. Her work portrays Black people 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 her life and the importance of the Black family, love, and creating art that displays Black histories, lived experiences, and futures in a positive light. Honeywood’s mother shared, “She was a visual historian, who took images from life and interpreted them in scenes that showed common experience.”

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.” Figures is a focus on the people, their bodies, how they are depicted, while abstraction allows for the essential elements of the work and narrative thrive. By combining all these elements in her art practice gave not only the work a sense of pride, familiarity, and influence, it gave art for Black people a new platform through art, craft, and the component of movement.

Her work is profoundly influenced by her travels to Africa, specifically Nigeria, where she often continued upon her return to incorporate African-inspired prints in her clothing and artwork. A beloved need for writing came from her sister Stephanie who was a linguist turned poet, a way that energized her contribution to books like Little Bill, and text-based works, where she cleverly used titles and idioms in her to draw attention to the story. With the captivating use of bold words and collection multi-media pieces that helped to shape the contemporary depictions of Black visual culture.

Artist Highlight: Varnette Honeywood
Abstract collage depicting five Black figures in colorful clothing.

Artist Highlight: Varnette Honeywood

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