First published: Winter 2009
Long ago, the trees thought they were people.
Long ago, the mountains thought they were people.
Long ago, the animals thought they were people.
Someday they will say, long ago the humans thought they were people.
– Native American storyteller, Johnny Moses
The idea of animal/human metamorphosis has existed since the beginning of time. There is even a name for it: therianthropy. Depictions of such creatures, therianthropes, range worldwide and in all cultures. Cave paintings from the upper Paleolithic period depict winged men and women with long bird beaks. A drawing of a dancing man in the cave of Les Trois Freres has antlers growing from his eyebrows. The humanoid Celtic lord of stags, Cernunnos, carved in rock during the 4th century in northern Italy, was known as the 'Horned God'.
There are stories about dogs and dragons in ancient China who could take human form. The Turkic people of China believed they were descended from wolves. The Egyptian sky god, Horus, had the head of a falcon. The Greek god Zeus often assumed animal shapes in his pursuit of young women. The Norse god Odin could transform at will into bird or beast. Scottish Selkies walked as men on land, but swam transformed as seals in the sea. Long before similar creatures appeared in fairy tales such as 'The Frog Prince' or 'Beauty and the Beast,' there were werewolves and cat wives in Europe; were-tigers in India; frog husbands in Tibet; leopard men, hyena men and lion wives in Africa; elk men, deer maidens, bear husbands, fox wives and mountain lion wives in Native America.
The animal/human hybrid, having emerged spontaneously in so many cultures, is without question a universal archetype of the unconscious mind. Its meaning and purpose is enigmatic and ineffable, but its presence is undeniable.
That is why it is all the more fascinating to find it erupt without warning in the work of Chicago African American visionary artist, William Dawson (1901–1990).
The work of William Dawson became internationally renowned as part of the 1982 travelling exhibition 'Black Folk Art in America,' first mounted at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. Dawson himself became famous for taking First Lady Nancy Reagan's arm at the show's opening reception and personally leading her through the exhibition as newspaper and TV cameras shot them, and reporters yelled out questions. 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. But neither of these transformations reflected his most magical and adept feats of metamorphosis.
Dawson grew up with his brother on his grandfather's horse farm in Huntsville, AL, where his favourite animals were the horses he rode bareback and the dogs that ran barking alongside them. When he was still a young boy, his father made him a little horse cart, but it was not a horse that pulled the laughing youngster through the dusty tobacco fields. It was his father. The fact that Dawson's father assumed the role of a horse would not seem significant ordinarily, but this innocent, mundane activity between Dawson and his father suggests a deeper situation, for the interchange of man and animal is a motif reflected again and again in Dawson's life and work. He remained blithely unaware of any such intention on his part, yet he left open the imaginative possibility that anything might be 'revealed.'