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Joseph Elmer Yoakum Drawing Of A Landscape

Joseph Elmer Yoakum (1886-1972)

According to Yoakum, he was born on a Navajo reservation in Window Rock, Arizona, so it’s possible he is actually Native American, but he identified as black and referred to himself as “an old black man”.  He grew up in Walnut Grove, Missouri, and at some point, ran away to join the circus.  He was also purportedly in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  He joined the Navy and served during WWI.  His whereabouts were unknown from the end of the war until 1962, but he was an itinerant, traveling everywhere; he also got married and had five children.

Yoachum was living in a small storefront on the Southside of Chicago in 1967, when a neighbor—an anthropologist and professor at Chicago State University —knocked on his door to inquire about the drawings Yoachum had pasted in the windows.  Yoachum had been relatively holed up in his space for the past five years, making drawings of all of his past travels.  The professor showed the work to his pastor, who showed the work to another pastor, and eventually the work was shown to a few of the successful “mainstream” artists in Chicago, most notably, Jim Nutt and Karl Wirsum.  Yoakum’s work and reputation spread hand-to-hand and mouth-to-mouth.  

A retrospective exhibition of his work, Joseph E. Yoachum: What I Saw is currently on display at the Museum of Modern art in New York, having traveled from the Art Institute of Chicago.

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