Artist Profile – William Dawson

William Dawson

1901-1990, born in Hunstville, Alabama, lived and worked in Chicago

Untitled (Penguins)

(detail): Untitled (Penguins), / 1989 / mixed media on paper / 15 x 14 inches / Collection of Gordon W. Bailey

Born in 1901 in Huntsville, Alabama, William Dawson was raised on his grandfather’s horse farm. In 1923, he moved to Chicago and made a thirty-five-year career as a well-regarded manager of operations at the E. E Aron Company, a wholesale produce distributor located on South Water Market.

A man of the city with rural roots, Dawson turned to artmaking in his retirement years, taking adult education classes in ceramics and metalwork at a senior center, before gravitating to wood carving and painting. “I just see something lying in the street and I know it could be turned into something…I don’t know what I’m going to do when I pick up a piece of wood, but the longer I look at it, it comes to me.”

Dawson thrived on the praise his work began to receive. To his astonishment, an exhibition of fifty works at the nearby Lincoln Park Library in 1972 sold out, bringing admiration and increasing visits from local collectors. These relationships developed into lifelong friendships with Susann Craig, Bert Hemphill, Marjorie and Harvey Freed, Chicago Imagist Roger Brown, and gallery owner Phyllis Kind, among others. According to Dawson, “It was the people liking my work that gave me the spirit to do more.”

His sculptural subjects range widely from the Bible, current events, television characters, folk tales, as well as a vast menagerie of animals—carved and painted, highly varnished, and sometimes adorned with glitter. Perhaps his most well-known works are the totems, carved from single pieces of wood, featuring frontal faces with his trademark wide, round eyes. “It’s something that’s revealed to me,” he explained. “That’s the way it is with my work. Like a lot of them artists try to copy things or take pictures. That I can’t do. I sit down and it just come to me. Some things I make is from memory. Some are things that you never seen. Sometimes as I’m working, things change. I start with one idea, then wind up making something entirely different than I intended.”

The work of William Dawson became internationally renowned as part of the 1982 travelling exhibition “Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980,” first presented at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. Dawson became famous for taking First Lady Nancy Reagan’s arm at the show’s opening reception and personally leading her through the exhibition. He had certainly transformed himself dramatically over the course of his life: from rural farm kid with barely a grade-school education to successful urban produce manager; and then from aging blue-collar retiree to world-class self-taught artist.


Artist’s Work