Born 1890, Ash Grove, Missouri
Died 1972, Chicago, Illinois
Joseph Yoakum experienced firsthand the golden age of the American railroad and circus, instilling in him a lifelong wanderlust. Though he claimed his birthplace was a Navajo reservation in Arizona, he was born in southwestern Missouri to parents of Cherokee and African American descent. He joined the Great Wallace Circus at age ten as a horse handler and later worked as a billposter for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West as well as Ringling Brothers. After serving in World War I, he traveled the country, earning money as a railroad inspector, farm worker, miner, and seaman. It was not until the age of seventy-two, when he was retired and living on the South Side of Chicago, that Yoakum began to devote himself to art. Drawing with ballpoint pen, pencil, and pastel on construction paper, he portrayed the far-flung landscapes of his youth.
Yoakum’s landscape subjects are rooted in his biography. Many feature locales along the routes of the railroad circuses with which he traveled as well as in his home state of Missouri (including its highest peak, Mt. Taum Sauk). But his works also tell a quintessentially American story: the rapid expansion of the railroad prompted more Americans to see more of the country. Scenic wonders were a frequent subject of Yoakum’s as seen in Briar Head Mtn of National Park Range of Bryce Canyon National Park near Hatch, Utah U.S.A. His picturesque compositions, with captions highlighting notable features, resemble tourist postcards. Yoakum rendered geography in a schematic, linear manner, like the topographical maps in atlases he kept around his studio. Pacific Northwest coast tribal art also informed his patterned rock forms, which appear to hide animals and faces.
Yoakum was “discovered” in 1967 and immediately championed by the Chicago imagists, including Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Roger Brown, and Christina Ramberg, who visited his studio regularly, collected his work, and exhibited with him. Their embrace of Yoakum is not surprising: his commitment to draftsmanship, synthesis of visual culture ranging from railroad advertising to Native American art, and the intensity of his concentration on a subject he cared about deeply, resonated with their own artistic values.
Depasse, Derrel B. Traveling the Rainbow: The Life and Art of Joseph E. Yoakum. New York: Museum of American Folk Art, with the University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2001.
Halstead, Whitney. Joseph E. Yoakum. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1972.