Adventure and Spirituality Collide in Joseph E. Yoakum’s Visionary Art

CHICAGO — Joseph Elmer Yoakum (1891–1972) wandered the globe during his 82 years. Beginning at age nine, he left his family in Missouri to join the circus. For eight years he toured the United States, Europe, South America, and China. He later enlisted in the Army, during World War I, and was stationed in France. Claiming both African American and Native American heritage, Yoakum stood tall in stature (over six feet), loomed large as a storyteller, and couldn’t seem to sit still. 

After decades of odd jobs, as well as two marriages and five children, Yoakum settled in Chicago’s South Side but he continued to travel to visit relatives, and moved a number of times. Although it is frequently reported that he was impelled by a dream to begin to draw in 1962, at the age of 71, there is evidence that he first started working with ceramics in the 1940s and then took up drawing in the 1950s. We do know that by 1967, he was discovered by the art world. After his first show in a church cafe, artists and historians affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago began to seek out his work. It was the art historian and SAIC professor Whitney Halstead who became a steadfast guide and lifelong friend. He gifted his collection of Yoakum drawings to the Art Institute of Chicago, as did some Chicago Imagists, such as Jim Nutt, Ray Yoshida, Gladys Nilsson, Christina Ramberg, Philip Hanson, and Roger Brown.

Joseph E. Yoakum, “Mt Cloubelle Jamaca of West India” (stamped 1969),
Collection of Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt

Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw presents 100 drawings, an overview of the 2,000 drawings (one a day or more) that Yoakum made during his decade as a professional artist. His daily production served as an extension of his travels, a way to keep moving and remain in awe of nature as his fingers roamed mountainous terrain with pen in hand. Yoakum had said repeatedly that the drawings were “spiritual unfoldments,” meaning that faith guided his patterns and passages.  

The pencil, pastel, ink, and sometimes watercolor drawings, done in recognition of the places he had traveled, appear like vignettes out a train window. Scenes flit by, translations of sensations and recollections seen through a scrim of distanced, nearly faded memory. Yoakum’s breezy linear approach does not yearn toward verisimilitude. Instead he works within a highly developed style, first drawing large shapes with his pen, then adding patterns of undulating lines, repetitive tree forms, and occasional boats and trains, and finishing the works with tenderly applied color washes. One can sense the time of day in each drawing, their skies ranging from crisp blues to smoky oranges and sunset pinks. Mountains, devoid of humans or animals, are his anchoring motif. His worlds are animated, alive, but also remote, as distant memories collide with distant places. 

Joseph E. Yoakum, “Saw Toot Mtn Montana” (n.d.), Collection of the Roger Brown Study Collection

His early years, amid circus banners, railroad travel posters, and hand-tinted postcards, may have influenced the ways in which Yoakum recorded these places. In many of the drawings, he wrote the location in neat cursive, followed by his signature in the upper left corner, sometimes with a rubber-stamped date. This tidy conjoining of pictorial majesty with the specific data of place and time personalizes the images and makes them feel like a hand-hewn atlas. 

Occasionally a boat or train might appear within the larger crags of rock formations. Less frequent are signs of human life, such as the tiny woodpile with an ax and maul at the side of a log house in “Rocky Mts British Columbia Canada” (1963). When he included them, houses tend to be stylized and emphasize the human imprint as minuscule. Early drawings such as “Bitter Root Range Near Boise Idaho” (1962) drift toward knobbly abstraction while still clearly notating trees, cliff, sky. Yoakum’s scratchy line patterns and oozy shapes meet pale blue waterways and densely stylized groves of trees, forming an inventive vocabulary that he tips, turns, and reconfigures. 

Joseph E. Yoakum, “Beulah Dudley 1st Negro Woman to Win Golff Record in Year 1927” (stamped 1970), The Art Institute of Chicago, bequest of Whitney Halstead

It is easy to imagine the artist sitting at his table in his 12-by-20-foot urban storefront where a clothesline hung near the front window to display the work. Many of his drawings are around 12 by 18 inches, or small enough to hunch over. For Yoakum, a man who turned to art later in life, making a drawing every day must have held his memories and provided material evidence of each day’s productivity. This seriality generated individual works that in a large exhibition can appear repetitive; a section of the exhibition that dips into portraits is a nice departure. More fascinating than the individual drawings, however, is Yoakum’s body of work taken as a whole — how he stitched together his life adventures with his spirituality.

Yoakum worked in dialogue with his faith. The exhibition catalogue gently prods this aspect of his art. Essayist Edouard Kopp, a curator at the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston, concludes that, “Following an itinerant life of moving out and into the unknown, Yoakum ultimately turned inward, where through drawing, he seems to have made an attempt at a spiritual homecoming.” 

Joseph E. Yoakum, “The Open Gate to the West in Rockey Mtn Range near Pueblo Colorado” (stamped 1966), Collection of Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt

Esther Adler, an associate curator at MoMA, specifically focuses on Yoakum’s spirituality in her essay, addressing the roles church and faith have played historically in African American communities and connecting Yoakum’s work to the Christian Science religion. The artist told a newspaper in 1967, “After I draw them, I have a spiritual remembrance and I know what is pictured.” This indicates that he did not sit down with a place in mind; his hand roved and he later determined the location of what had materialized. Adler explains that in Christian Science thought, matter, or what we might see as a mountain, is not real. Spirit and God are real and truth is determined by a “spiritual unfoldment,” or in conversation with the divine. 

Without this religious overlay, Yoakum’s drawings are simply landscapes, albeit rather inventive ones. The Chicago Imagist most influenced by Yoakum’s work, Roger Brown, once wondered, “How could someone with no training just start making art that was so superior to most of the art of the day done by trained artists?” For Yoakum, the answer to that would be obvious.

Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through October 18. The exhibition is curated by Mark Pascale.

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