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Child Watch® Column: "Remembering Varnette Honeywood"

Release Date: October 1, 2010

Marian Wright Edelman

Artist Varnette Honeywood had a clear vision of how she perceived Black people and families and a gift for sharing her joyful, colorful perspective with the rest of the world. Her paintings became familiar to fans everywhere after several of them, including "Birthday," were featured in the Huxtables' home on The Cosby Show. She was a dear friend to the Children's Defense Fund and the illustrator and creator of our beautiful logo for the Black Community Crusade for Children's Leave No Child Behind® movement. Her death in September at age 59 was a sad loss for all of us.

Varnette grew up in Los Angeles, where her parents, who had migrated from Mississippi and Louisiana, were both elementary school teachers. She remembered that she and her beloved sister Stephanie would often help them test art projects they had designed for their students. Her parents nurtured her childhood talent, and Varnette started taking art classes at age 12. As an undergraduate at Spelman College, my alma mater, she originally planned to study history and become a teacher like her parents, but her drawing teacher and fellow students who saw her early work strongly encouraged her to change her major. She graduated with a degree in art in 1972.

After Spelman Varnette returned to Los Angeles, where she got a master's degree in education from the University of Southern California and began working as an art teacher and developed what became her signature artistic style of simple silhouettes and bold colors. Just as important as her innovative style was her choice of subjects. At a time when many other Black artists were depicting poverty or struggle in their work, Varnette often chose family themes or portrayed church or community gatherings. She was deeply influenced by her own close family and childhood summers she spent with her extended family in Mississippi and her art showed loving, vibrant, joyful, and positive scenes from Black life.

In the mid 1970s she and her sister Stephanie founded their own distribution company, Black Lifestyles, that featured Varnette's work on posters, prints, and notecards. Fellow Spelman alumna Camille Cosby and husband Bill began collecting her work after seeing one of her sets of cards. When Bill Cosby had the opportunity to help choose artwork for the set of The Cosby Show, he knew the look and feel of Varnette's paintings would be a perfect fit. They partnered again when she created the artwork for his children's book series Little Bill, which became an award-winning animated television show. The Little Bill series again showcased Varnette's signature talent for depicting a positive, loving Black family. Creating these kinds of images for Black children was always a deliberate goal in her work.

As an art teacher in Los Angeles, Varnette worked in a juvenile detention program and designed a multicultural arts curriculum for use in the public schools. She understood the power positive images could have on children's self-esteem and development. When the Children's Defense Fund's Black Community Crusade for Children was launched, we wanted to convey the ideas of love, warmth, family, unity, and community caring for children that represented our mission. She was the first and obvious choice to create the logo. The gorgeous result, Leave No Child Behind, shows four sets of strong Black adults of all shades, each standing behind and firmly and protectively embracing a beautiful Black child's shoulders—a gesture of loving protection and guidance.

Varnette also created posters for CDF's teen pregnancy prevention campaign and Beat the Odds® awards program and charged not one penny. Although she was one of the nation's most prominent Black artists, she was always a caring mentor and generous friend who never lost her original calling to teach and reach back to help others. She used her gift to uplift and inspire other people. I am so grateful for Varnette Honeywood's life and all of the beauty and joy she leaves behind in her work.

 

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Submitted by Allison Bassett Carmichael at: November 29, 2010
Dear Mrs. Marian Wright Edelman, 27 November 2010; Hello. I've finished reading your book, 'The Measure of our Success,' for the second time in two weeks.It's well written and p acks a powerful punch for women's issues in problem identity, clear advice and p ractical wisdon. I believe behavior is the basis of all positive and negative societal trends and as you stated, one person may make a ositive difference in their attitude, approaches and follow-through activities; the opposite, as ou so clearly stated, is also true. Yuo listed so many wonderful examples of people who had truly made a difference; thanks. I believe you also rang true on your advice that we have a larger, more effective affect when we work through our children, other people/youth without needing to claim reward for our activities. We have to be proud of ourselves; not accept treatment we wouldn't dream of bestowing on others. Thank you so much for a grounded, loving book detailing your children's lessons; I also believe you learned as much from them as you taught them; I certainly have. As a single mother of four children, who moved (CA to PA) from her husband when he asked for a separation/divorce (fall 1998), I've struggled with child-care issues for years. Our divorce was in CA under a joint custody arangment, which meant I had to financially contribute as much to managing our household as the children's father. After a 20-year span of stauing home to raise kids (ages of our children at time of our s eparation: 3,5,12,13) I transported our kids, myself, belongings to PA and moved in with my parents for a hsort time. I had a hard time returning to work since my interest/education (B.A. Hope College, Holland, MI, spring 1975) was in developmental psychology, children's behavior from an early age on. One issue day-care, pre-school staff need to understand, focus on is the need for children, beginning at ages 2 to 3, to play with, bond with peers, children of their age, more than child-care staff; that is also well documented behavior of teenagers, , as you certainly appreciate. I think the key to working with youth is to understand that need and work around and t hrough it, like 4-h, other civic youth organizaations promote. My job search has always focused on day-dare/pre-school with toddlers my specialty. /during my 15 years of working in day-care/pre-school centers, as well as c a ring for my own c hildren and our geriatric parents, I've noticed a gat similarity in how people age and de-age; I've also developed a clear instinct of when our children/parents 'ask' for help for tasks they could handle by themselves - they develop 'puppy-dog' eyes, it seems. By helping th em clarify their abilities/in-abilities, I have been agenerally always able to help them manage what they can h andle, thereby also helping them remain happier, healthier and more independent. Understand, I love helping our kids/parents because I love any and all time we spend together; I also delight in the independencd, confidence, compatability and cooperation that develops in our kids due to the aforementioned reasons. I've written a manuscript, 'Teach A child To L isten; Listen To The Child,' in which I detail phases through which a c hild progresses during early yars of his/her life. These are important phases for day-care/pre-school staff to be aware of , but I've never heard/seen th em practiced anywhere and eveyr director with whom I've spoken about the phases was unfamiliar with their importance. Most pre-schools I've observed and worked in have offered minimum wage positions that have frequent turn-over rates - not the best situatioj for early childhood learning practices. I'd like to suggest one alternative: women/men cooperate to develop day-care/pre-school facilities operated by businesses; I know one business in Greensburg, PA, which operates a fun, low-key day-care/pre-school for employees. The last pre-school position I worked was located at a community college; it was well used by students and fa culty and I delighted in watching parents take their kids on breaks, lunch, exercise time - good for both. Curiously, the other book I read the last few weeks was Neil Strauss' 'Emergency;' opposite, but a very good fit. It was dynamite. Thank you very much! Allison Bassett Carmichael, snowbelled@yahoo.com

Submitted by Debbie at: November 25, 2010
I am deeply sad and yet happy for this article. It is a testimony of a great and gifted women who illustrated life through colorful artworks. Her art taught me and others about afro-american life and lifestyles through art. I know that the world see us in a positive manner because of her contributions. She is my hero. I can only hope that history will acknowledge her so that my granddaughter can learn about her good works and contributions. She dared to be different! My love for her paintings on the Cosby show and the little Bill books, I read to my son allowed me to gain knowledge of a diffrent and possible life in America for all. I am glad that God allowed her to use her talents for us to learn about being Afro-American and a people. I appreciate and love the writer(s)of this article. I thank God for Ms. Honeywood talents and achievements. Ms.Honeywood will never be forgotten. Thank you for writing. God bless you. Debbie

Submitted by Patreece Thompson, MD at: October 5, 2010
It was sad to read about the death of someone who had such a subliminal impact on the minds of Americans who viewed the Cosby Show. Truly someone who did the Lord's work and is now called home.

Submitted by nanny4D at: October 4, 2010
Thank you for giving us this beautiful tribute to one of our most gifted sister-artist. Her legacy will not be forgotten.