Artist Profile – Joseph Yoakum

The Hills of Old Wyoming

(detail): Joseph Yoakum / The Hills of Old Wyoming / c. 1969 / Ballpoint pen, pastel, and colored pencil on paper / 12 x 19 1/16 in. / Philadelphia Museum of Art: Bequest of Derrel DePasse, 2002 / Graydon Wood, Philadelphia Museum of Art

1890–1972, lived and worked in Chicago, Illinois

Joseph Yoakum arrived at art in his later years, making approximately 2,000 small-scale drawn landscapes in the last decade of his life. Unlike many self-taught artists, he enjoyed at least a modest amount of appreciation and remuneration from the art world before he died in 1972. While much of Yoakum’s biographical information cannot be verified, he was likely born in 1890 in Missouri to parents of African, French, and Cherokee descent (although he claimed he was born in 1888, in Arizona, to a Navajo family). The artist said that, at age nine, he ran away to join the circus and later traveled the world as a billposter. Upon his return as to the United States, he settled first in Missouri and finally in Chicago. He began drawing in the 1950s, and in 1967 his imaginary landscapes came to the attention of the Hairy Who and Imagist circle of the Art Institute of Chicago. Artists Ray Yoshida, Jim Nutt, and Whitney Halstead praised and promoted Yoakum, who was granted a solo show at the Whitney Museum shortly before his death in 1972.

A proud world traveler and a deeply spiritual man whose beliefs embraced both Christianity and Navajo animism, Yoakum instilled in his work elements of travelogue and revelation. Usually rendered in ballpoint pen and colored pencil, and then buffed to a shine with toilet paper, these evocative drawings feature a refined color sensitivity, a sublime sense of compositional balance and symmetry, and a sinuous organic line. Most of his drawings include inscriptions indicating the location of the drawn scenes, though the depicted landscapes bear no resemblance to the actual named locations.

Artist’s Work