Joseph Elmer Yoakum (1890-1972) was born in Ash Grove, Missouri, in 1890. His mother was of French-American, Cherokee and African American descent, and his father was of Cherokee and African American descent. He grew up on a farm, receiving only four months of formal schooling. From 1900 to 1908, he worked for several circuses. In 1910, he married and started working for railway companies. Yoakum was drafted in 1918 and served in France during World War I. He and his wife divorced upon his return.
Yoakum settled in Chicago in the late 1920s, remarried, and worked as a carpenter, mechanic and janitor. After his retirement he began making art, describing his creative process as a ‘spiritual unfoldment.’ In addition to landscapes, Yoakum drew portraits of famous African Americans and modeled clay sculptures from kits, which he displayed in his storefront studio on Chicago’s South Side.
While traveling with the circus, in the army and during jobs on trains and ships Yoakum saw much of the world. These adventures, along with National Geographic magazine, likely served as a source of inspiration for Yoakum’s watercolor, pen and pencil landscapes. Yoakum signed, time-stamped and included descriptions, in the upper left-hand corner of his works.
During his lifetime Yoakum created around 2,000 paintings and drawings. The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Douglas Kenyon Gallery in Chicago held solo exhibitions of Yoakum’s work in 1972. His works continue to be celebrated in major exhibitions and are in the permanent collection of museums throughout the United States.
Watch a video about Yoakum’s art: