Joseph E. Yoakum, Mt. Mourner in Maritine Alps, colored pencil on paper, 1968

Joseph E. Yoakum, Mt. Japvo Peak in Hamalaya Range

Joseph E. Yoakum (1889-1972)

Joseph Elmer Yoakum was a self-taught artist who lived an adventurous life of world travel, show business and art. He was born in Green County, Missouri, to a father of Cherokee and African-American descent and a French-American mother. Yoakum himself claimed to have been born in Arizona as a Navajo Indian. He was 76 when he started to record his memories of landscapes in drawings and paintings, and produced more than 2000 works of art over the last decade of his life. Yoakum began his travels at age 9 when he left home to join the Great Wallace circus. He took a variety of jobs as he toured the world: a horse wrangler for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, a billboard poster in traveling circuses, a soldier in World War I and a merchant seaman. He started a family in Missouri in 1909 but did not return to them after the war. Instead, he traveled around the United States working at odd jobs. He settled in Chicago in the 1940s and was drawing regularly by the 1950s.

Most of the 2,000 drawings Yoakum created after 1962—the works for which he’s known today—represent the places he claims to have visited during his early years of wandering. Each is labeled with its location and the date he was there. Yoakum’s work reveals that he was a proud world traveler and a deeply spiritual man whose beliefs embraced both Christianity and Navajo animism. Because Yoakum’s landscapes do not always resemble the actual named locations, it is difficult to determine the truth of the stories he told about his travels. Someone who knew him well believed that his stories were more invention than reality. Perhaps it was the life that Yoakum wished he have lived. He said, “There’s nothing I haven’t suffered to see things firsthand.”

Yoakum used a variety of tools to create his works. He drew his landscape outlines with ballpoint pen on ordinary paper, always using two lines to designate land masses. He then filled them in with colored pencils and watercolors, buffing them to a shine with toilet paper. Near the end of his life he turned toward pure abstraction. Yoakum was discovered by the mainstream art world in 1967 and was granted a solo exhibit at the Whitney Museum shortly before his death. Today, the power of his memory images is not in their likeness to the locations they feature but for their compositional features of balance, symmetry, and organic form.