Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on August 4, 2006 with the permission of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art and the author. It first appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of Insight, the Center's member magazine. If you have questions or comments regarding the article,please contact Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


'Visiting Mr. Dawson' A portrait of the artist-through the eyes of those who knew him well

by John Cain



Intuit's recent exhibit of artwork by William Dawson was an opportunity to get to know the artist through the people who knew him. A panel convened on February 9 featured collectors Beth and Jim Arient, Susann Craig, David Kargl, Michael Noland and Bob Vogele, who were among those who had so generously lent works to the exhibit. Mr. Dawson's grandson Lowell Bell, who lived for a number of years with his grandparents, made a special guest appearance. Here are some recollections about the artist, culled from that discussion.

Born on October 20, 1901, in Huntsville, Alabama, William Dawson grew up on a farm, where he learned to ride horses bareback. In 1923, he married Osceola Harris and moved to Chicago, where he was employed for 38 years by produce distributor E.E. Aron at South Water Market and became one of the first black members of the Teamsters Union.

After retirement, the Dawsons moved from the South Side to a three-bedroom apartment in Old Town, where, Bell said, his grandfather "crashed" the ladies' arts and crafts class his grandmother was attending. "He did not like to take instructions," Bell recalled, "and he would get into huge arguments with the teacher."

As Jim Arient wrote in the Folk Art Messenger in 1990, Mr. Dawson soon began using pieces of discarded wood or old chair and table legs found in the neighborhood to carve the totems and other figures for which he would become famous. Interestingly, neither he nor his wife had ever heard of a totem until an admirer commented on his carving one day in Lincoln Park. "My grandmother went home and looked it up in the dictionary," Bell said.

Among the striking features in Mr. Dawson's artwork are his subjects' eyes. Bell calls them "African eyes," referencing an observation made by a curator of the landmark exhibit Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980, presented at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1982.

One of Beth Arient's favorite memories of visiting Mr. Dawson has to do with those eyes. As a birthday present, Beth had had her face done at Merle Norman in Naperville. Blue eye shadow was very much the thing at the time, and they had really piled it on. Mr. Dawson, who was very observant, noticed the makeover at once when the Arients visited later that day. "Oh Beth!" he exclaimed, "You look so good!" Afterward, the eyes of Mr. Dawson's subjects started having more color, too.

In the mid-'70s, a schoolteacher who lived upstairs from Mr. Dawson told him about an art program for seniors at the Lincoln Park library branch. Persuaded to display his artwork, he carried two shopping bags full over to the library. When it was time to pick up his work a few weeks later, he went back with his bags folded under his arms. "I've got good news and bad news," the woman at the library told him, according to Bell. "The bad news is that we don't have your work anymore. The good news is that we sold it all."

"Is this real?" Mr. Dawson asked, as she handed him a check. Returning home with the two empty shopping bags, he said to his family, "Look at this! She gave me a check for $3,000. And I've been givin' this stuff away!"

Susann Craig, who collected outsider art long before it had a name, was one of the first people to encounter Mr. Dawson's work at the library, where she came upon an entire case of carvings. Intrigued, she tracked him down and went to see him. She shared her discovery with friend Roger Brown. As it happened, Bert Hemphill was in town, so the two of them went to see Mr. Dawson together. They, in turn, told Phyllis Kind about the artist, and she started selling some of his pieces. Mr. Dawson called her "Miss Phipps."

One evening, Craig went with Mr. Dawson to the opening of a group show that he was in at the Phyllis Kind Gallery, along with artists such as S.L. Jones and P.M. Wentworth. Mr. Dawson walked through the gallery, Craig said, and became convinced that his work was the best. "He simply couldn't understand why the other pieces were in the show at all," she said.

Craig gave Mr. Dawson his first one-man show upstairs in the photography gallery at Columbia College, where the curators who were organizing the Corcoran show first saw his work. That exhibit also marked the first time Beth and Jim Arient saw it. Wednesday was Jim's day off from his dental practice in Naperville, and the day the couple always went into the city to visit galleries and have lunch. Falling in love with the work immediately, they, like Craig, tracked down Mr. Dawson and visited him two days later, making their first purchase, a totem. "We basically visited him once a week for 10 years," Jim Arient said. "Long before Tuesdays with Morrie, we had Wednesdays with William."

The Arients, who got to know personally many of the folk artists whose work they collected, found Mr. Dawson to be a true gentleman, who never got over the way people responded to his work. While the pressure of fame could be quite overwhelming for many of the artists, Mr. Dawson, they said, always remained thrilled that his work was interesting to people and that it connected him with interesting people.

Although he wasn't yet collecting folk or outsider art at the time, Bob Vogele also saw the show at Columbia and purchased one of Mr. Dawson's carved figures. "I had made a number of visits to see Mr. Dawson and found him to be a very warm and personable man, to the point where you thought you were talking to a personal friend."

But Bell presented another view of the Dawsons entirely, one perhaps apparent only to a grandson sent to live with them in hopes that they could better control him. He was witness to the daily feuding that went on between his grandparents. "They had a very adversarial relationship," he said.

Osceola was no great fan of her husband's artistic output, which she called his "toys." She hated the mess he made and the way the figures cluttered the apartment. "Granddaddy would sit in his room carving and just let the sawdust fall all over the front of him," Bell said. "Then, just to aggravate her, he'd get up and walk through the apartment, letting it fall wherever he went. They were constantly at each other's throats. The only time they stopped fighting was when they sat down together every day to watch The People's Court."

A major retrospective of Mr. Dawson's work, co-curated by David Kargl and Michael Noland, was presented at the Chicago Cultural Center in early 1990, prior to the artist's death later that year. Kargl remembers first seeing Mr. Dawson's work at the Hyde Park Art Center and made his first purchase from that show. He admired Mr. Dawson's inventiveness, the way his work kept changing and the unusual way he would approach the form. As an artist, Kargl said, it was something that always kept him interested.

When Noland first saw Mr. Dawson's The Dream House, from Roger Brown's collection, he thought, "Wow, what in the world is going on here?" Like the others, Noland pursued Mr. Dawson as well, and became a frequent visitor to the North Avenue apartment, where, he recalled, the artist "worked in a bedroom that was about as wide as two couches and about 14 feet deep. It was very narrow, very intimate." Bell can remember his grandfather, who had been used to getting up very early every day before he retired, sometimes banging away with a chisel on the floor of that room at 2:30 in the morning.

"I think he's one of the most underrated artists in America, certainly in the outsider art world," Noland said of Mr. Dawson. "Sometimes, when I mention his name to nationally known collectors, they don't know quite who he is. They only associate his name with the totems. I say, no, that it's almost endless the variety of what he did. It's inspirational to me, the way he put things together."

Although Noland took Mr. Dawson to several art openings, he said the artist was never remotely interested in anybody else's work. "One time I gave him a gift of a painting of mine," Noland said, "and you could tell he was just being polite. It meant absolutely nothing to him. And I remember being at an opening of Ed Paschke's or Roger Brown's, and he would go up to people and say, 'Well, you know I'm an artist, too.' "

In the 1980s, Mr. Dawson began to tire of carving. Several friends brought him paper and paints and encouraged him to paint instead. "When I met him," Kargl said, "I only knew him to do carvings. But I left a piece of paper behind that I was using as a backdrop to photograph some things, and the next time I visited, he had turned it into four paintings." The horses he had ridden bareback as a boy in Huntsville became frequent subjects of his paintings.

A painting in Craig's collection, however, proves that he actually painted much earlier at the senior center, even before ever making his first carvings. "Even in the early ceramics, it's really about painting," Noland said, "especially in the mid-'80s and toward the end of his life, when his paintings became more expressive as he became less able to carve the way he wanted."

Not knowing what the Corcoran was, the call from Washington that the government would fly him and his wife there, all expenses paid, for the opening of Black Folk Art in America bewildered Mr. Dawson. Osceola was entirely unwilling to go, preferring instead that Bell accompany his grandfather. At art shows, she had never been able to control her husband, who, she said, would just go up and grab people to talk to them regardless of their skin color.

Of the 20 artists included in the Corcoran exhibit, only seven were living, and two of them were stuck on a train in a blizzard somewhere between New Orleans and Washington. "There was so much excitement, waiting for Nancy Reagan to arrive for a luncheon the day of the opening," Bell recalled. "And I was supposed to keep him in line."

Each of the artists, including Mr. Dawson, was greeted by the First Lady and photographed with her. "Then the photographers wanted a picture of him with the art," Lowell says. "Granddaddy misunderstood what they wanted and rushed over to Mrs. Reagan, took her arm and began talking to her. Everyone loved it-he was the hit of the show."


"In the Eyes of Mr. Dawson," curated by John Cain, was presented by Intuit from January 13 ­ March 25, 2006.

Resource Library editor's note:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Cleo Wilson, Executive Director of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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