Joseph Elmer Yoakum (February 22, 1889 – December 25, 1972) was a self-taught landscape artist of African-American and Native American descent, who drew landscapes in a highly individual style. He was 76 when he started to record his memories in the form of imaginary landscapes, and he produced over 2,000 drawings during the last decade of his life. His work is an example of what is sometimes called Outsider Art (formerly, drawings and paintings of the insane).
His official records note that Yoakum was born in Missouri, but he told a story of being born in Arizona, in 1888, as a Navajo Indian on the Window Rock Navajo reservation.Taking pride in his invented native heritage, Yoakum would pronounce "Navajo" as "Na-va-JOE" (as in "Joseph"). His father was a Cherokee Indian, and his mother was a former slave of mixed Cherokee, African-American, and French-American descent. He spent his early childhood on a Missouri farm.
Yoakum left home when he was nine years old to join the Great Wallace Circus. As a billposter, he also traveled across the U.S. with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and the Ringling Brothers, among the five different circuses. He later traveled to Europe as a stowaway.
In 1908, he returned to Missouri and started a family with his girlfriend Myrtle Julian, with whom he had his first son in 1909; the couple married in 1910. Yoakum was drafted into army service in 1918 and worked in the 805th Pioneer Infantry repairing roads and railroads.
After the war, he traveled around the U.S. working odd jobs, but he never returned to his family. He later remarried and moved to Chicago. In 1946, Yoakum was committed to a psychiatric hospital there. He soon left and by the early 1950s, he was drawing on a regular basis.
Yoakum was again living and painting in Chicago by 1962. Tom Brand, owner of Galaxy Press on the south side of Chicago, in 1968 had some printing to deliver to a coffee shop called "The Whole". While there he noticed the colored pencil drawings of Yoakum and was immediately taken by them. Brand had an account with the Ed Sherbyn Gallery on the north side of Chicago, and he persuaded Sherbyn to exhibit Yoakum's works and even printed his own poster for this show. Norman Mark of The Chicago Daily News wrote an article about Yoakum called "My drawings are a spiritual unfoldment"; this article was printed on the back of the poster. Brand informed his artist friends (including Whitney Halstead) about Yoakum and encouraged them to visit the Whole coffee shop. Halstead, an artist and instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, became the greatest promoter of Yoakum's work during his lifetime. He believed that his story was "more invention than reality... in part myth, Yoakum's life as he would have wished to have lived it."
In 1967, Yoakum was discovered by the mainstream art community through John Hopgood, an instructor at the Chicago State College, who saw Yoakum's work hanging in his studio window and purchased twenty-two pictures. A group of students including Roger Brown, Gladys Nillson, Jim Nutt, and Barbara Rossi, and teachers at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, including Ray Yoshida and Whitney Halstead, took an interest in promoting his work. In 1972, just one month before his death, Yoakum was given a one-man show at the Whitney Museum in New York City.
He started drawing familiar places, such as Green Valley Ashville Kentucky, as a method to capture his memories. However, he shifted towards imaginary landscapes in places he had never visited, like Mt Cloubelle of West India or Mt Mowbullan in Dividing Range near Brisbane Australia. Drawing outlines with ballpoint pen, rarely making corrections, he colored his drawings within the lines using watercolors and pastels. He became known for his organic forms, always using two lines to designate land masses.
During the final four months of his life was marked by a use of pure abstraction, as in his illustration Flooding of Sock River through Ash Grove Mo [Missouri] on July 4, 1914 in that [waters] drove many persons from Homes I were with the Groupe leiving [sic] their homes for safety. That painting was one of his autobiographical works.