Born and raised in a small farm in Huntsville, Alabama, William Dawson migrated north to Illinois in search of work. There he worked for thirty-eight years for the E.E. Aron Company, a wholesale produce distributor in Chicago’s South Water Market. Dawson would also pick up part time work in private security when he could. As a way to pass his long work hours, Dawson began whittling found scraps of wood that he felt held the potential to be something more. When included in the 1982 exhibition Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980 in Washington D.C. Dawson bloomed under the eye of a national audience and even took the First Lady Nancy Reagan by the arm to escort her through the show.
Dawson’s works are often carved from discarded wood such as chair legs and old fencing and then combined with other found remnants like chicken bones to enhance the sculpture. Early works have a totemic look to them with crude stacked faces, while later work becomes more involved and detailed. Depending on the available materials, Dawson’s work ranges from the intimately small works measured only inches high to towering carvings of several feet. Dawson drew inspiration from life around him with his portraits ranging from prominent public and Biblical figures to television characters and familiar animals.