William Dawson grew up on a farm in Huntsville, Alabama. In 1923 he moved to Chicago, where he worked in a wholesale food market for almost forty years. After he retired, he took painting and ceramics classes at a Chicago senior center. He was bored, however, and started carving figures, animals, and totems from discarded pieces of furniture. He got up at five in the morning to work on his sculptures, and would make a new piece every day. Eventually, his wife persuaded him to move some of his pieces out of the house and he took them to a local library. The library agreed to exhibit his work, and the entire show sold out.