Art Study

The Art of Joseph Yoakum

Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art Staff

At First Glance

Use the slideshow to the right to look at the two images. Where are the points of focus or interest in each of these images? How does the artist lead you into each of these landscapes? How are space and movement implied in each? What are the individual elements that you see, and how does the artist help you identify what they might be? What do you notice about the artist’s use of color? How would you describe the differences between the two paintings?

Read to Build Knowledge

Joseph Yoakum created these two landscapes by first drawing outlines using a ballpoint pen. Next he filled in his shapes with color, using watercolors and pastels. Unlike artists who tried to create realistic scenes that looked like the world around them, Yoakum became known for his scenes made of expressive, organic shapes that stand for forms in nature, like trees and clouds. Yoakum is considered a self-taught artist—an artist without formal training in the art studio tradition. One of the landscapes here was inspired by the Julian Alps in Yugoslavia (present day Slovenia). The other shows part of the Great Dividing Range of mountains in Australia.

Yoakum led an adventurous life that included world travel, show business, and making art. Records show he was born in Green County, Missouri on February 20, 1890, to a father of Cherokee and African American descent and a French-American mother. He grew up at a time when the American railroad and the American circus were both important and popular aspects of American culture. Though it was less common for Americans to leave their hometowns in the early 1900s than it is today, Yoakum traveled throughout North America and beyond in that era, when he was a very young man. He toured the world as a horse wrangler for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show and worked in circus companies. He served as a soldier during World War I and spent time as a merchant seaman. He even worked as a railroad porter, an apple picker, and a miner. These travels were difficult for Yoakum. As an African American with little money or formal education, he faced barriers and threats of violence rooted in racial prejudice and injustice. Yoakum’s artworks reflect the power of his experiences as a proud world traveller and a deeply spiritual man. He called his drawings “Spiritual Unfoldment” (the word unfoldment can mean a type of personal opening or revelation).

Most of the 2,000 drawings Yoakum created were made after 1962, during the last ten years of his life. These most famous works represent the places he reported visiting when he was younger. Yoakum labeled each drawing with the name of the location shown and the date he said he visited. But Yoakum’s landscape drawings do not always resemble the actual locations named in their titles. Scholars have not been able to confirm that Yoakum visited all of the places that his drawing reference, and can only confirm some of the jobs that would have led to his travels. For these reasons, scholars have wondered whether his journeys to places that inspired his drawings were real or imagined. Either way, the artist has created powerful images that illustrate a unique vision and personal type of truth. His works can inspire us to connect landscapes to our own memories and imaginations.

Analyze and Interpret

  1. What techniques does Joseph Yoakum use to create his landscape drawings? Notice his use of lines, shapes, and patterns. How would you describe them? What do they contribute to the overall mood or feeling?
  2. How did Yoakum’s artistic choices help create specific moods?
  3. How do you think the artist felt about each of these places? What details make you think this
  4. Joseph Yoakum was described as a religious or spiritual man. Are there any qualities or details in the two artworks that support this idea?
  5. We don’t really know if Joseph  Yoakum went everywhere he said he did. Why do you think an artist might choose to draw places that he had never seen himself?
  6. Do you think that looking at his paintings can help us to decide whether his stories of travel and adventure are real or imagined? Do you think that it matters whether or not he had been to the places he drew?
  7. Do you think that Yoakum wanted to show how a place really looked or to show how he felt about it? Use evidence from the artworks to support your answer.

Extension activity (for younger students)

Discussion Prompts and Questions

Sometimes we think we have seen something when we have only imagined it, dreamt it, or heard about it in a story. These things can seem very real because they made us happy or frightened us. Other times it can be fun to make up faraway places or different worlds. Our imaginations can transport us out of our everyday lives and into whole new adventures. Think about connections between imagination and art.

  1. How can art also transport us to an imaginary place like a storybook does?
  2. How can art transport us to the past? Do you think that an artist can relive an event as he/she draws it?
  3. Do you expect landscape paintings or drawings to be accurate representations of the places they depict? Why or why not? When do they need to be accurate to be true? When do they not need to be accurate?

Extension activity (for older students)

Discussion Prompts and Questions

Joseph Yoakum was an outsider for much of his life— a person of color in a racist society, a nomad who never settled down in one place, a member of a circus group, and at one point even a stowaway on a ship. When people feel alienated or different, they sometimes turn to invention and imagination to create an alternate reality to cope with those feelings. We can make up a life journey in which we are the heroes of our own adventures. Yoakum’s 2,000 works date from his later life when he was settled in Chicago, but he also claimed: “I’ve been drawing all my life…”

  1. Why do you think that Yoakum turned to art as a way to document his travels?
  2. Can one artwork on its own represent a journey? Why or why not?
  3. What do you think Yoakum was expressing through his paintings? What details make you think that?
  4. Would your answer to the previous question change if you knew for certain that Yoakum had never been to the places he depicted? Or if you knew that he had?
  5. What can a drawing or painting of a space or landscape convey to us that a photograph cannot?

For further reading (teachers)

Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. “Yoakum, Joseph”

Pascale, Mark. “The Picture Tells the Story: The Drawings of Joseph E. Yoakum.” Reprinted April 4, 2009.