William Dawson


was one of the few self-taught artists to achieve national recognition in his lifetime: first in 1982 with the seminal exhibition, “Black Folk Art in America: 1930–1980,” atthe Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and then in 1990 with a major retrospective, “The Artworks of William Dawson,” in which 250 works were shown at the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center. The artist carved in wood and painted pictures.Born on a large farm that his grandfather owned in Madison, Alabama, Dawson moved with his family to Chicago in 1923. He worked for the E.E.Aron Company,a wholesale produce distributor in Chicago’s South Water Market. He was one of the first AfricanAmerican men to become a member of the Teamsters’ Union, and began his career with the Aron company as a laborer, working his way into a management position over the years.After his retirement in the 1960s, Dawson enrolled in an art class at the local YMCA, but found it too regimented. He progressed from painting small pictures of houses and birds to carving figures of humans and animals executed in wood that he found in his neighborhood. His style was characterized by strong outlined features, penetrating eyes, and prominent teeth. The artist painted his carvings with acrylic paint and then sprayed them with shellac. Some of his figures bore a strongresemblance to people he knew, and he produced many self-portraits. Personalities from popular culture, such as Sammy Davis Jr., and political figures were subjectsof his woodcarvings, as were a gun-toting man in a stylish hat, an elegantly gowned woman, and a pair of hippies. His figures of people often had articulated arms nailedto the body, hands, and feet that were small in proportion to the head. Memories of farm life inspired many carvings and paintings of horses and dogs.Susann Craig, a teacher at Columbia College who saw his work in a display case at the Lincoln Park branch of the public library, was impressed with Dawson’ssingular expression. She arranged his first one-person exhibition at the college in 1976. Dawson completed about five hundred carvings and approximately 150 paintings in his lifetime.
See also
African American Folk Art (Vernacular Art); Painting, American Folk; Sculpture, Folk
Chicago Public Library Cultural Center.
The Artworks of Wittiam Dawson: 1980–1990.
Jackson, Miss., 1982.Horwich, Elinor L.
Contemporary American Folk Artists.
Philadelphia, 1975.Livingston, Jane, and John Beardsley.
Black Folk Art in America: 1930–1980.
Jackson and Oxford, Miss., 1982