Joseph Yoakum’s life was one filled with stories and adventure, but how much was fact untinged by fiction has long been cause for speculation. Documents indicate that he was born in Green County, Missouri on February 20, 1890 to a father of Cherokee and African American descent, and a mother who was French American. However, Yoakum claimed that he was born at Window Rock, Arizona in 1888, and was of Navajo ancestry. This birthplace would have been auspicious because, as noted by Yoakum scholar Derrel DePasse, it was the capital of the Navajo nation.
Having received little formal education in his youth, Yoakum set off at a young age to work with the Great Wallace Circus where he groomed horses and served as a stable hand. He continued in this line of work for a number of years, traveling with several circuses and shows, including Ringling Brothers and Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, with which he toured Europe between 1903 and 1906.
Yoakum returned to the United States and married in 1910, but was drafted in World War I. He served in France, and after the war did not return to his family, but continued a nomadic life, working on trains or in the shipping industry. During this time, it is said he stowed away on a ship and narrowly avoided being tossed overboard when he was discovered. However, the captain sent him to work in the boiler room, and he continued on the journey to Australia. Yoakum would later say that he had visited every continent in the world except for Antarctica.
After marrying again in the 1920s, Yoakum eventually settled in Chicago where he held a number of occupations, including proprietor of an ice cream parlor.
It’s not clear exactly when Yoakum began to create his elegant and abstracted compositions. Scholars believe his artistic activity may have begun in the 1940s, but Yoakum stated, “I’ve been drawing all my life...”(1) His pictures frequently show locations or memories of his travels, and he often included the name of the place on the drawing, as well as a stamped date on his vibrant works.
The larger art community in Chicago noticed his work in 1967, which resulted in several gallery shows. A group of artists known as the Chicago Imagists became great admirers of his work. Before his death in December 1972, Yoakum’s work was shown at numerous venues, including in New York at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum.
(1) Derrel B. Depasse, Traveling the Rainbow: The Life and Art of Joseph E. Yoakum, (New York: Museum of American Folk Art and Jackson: University Press of Mississppi,2001): 16.
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