Editor's note: The following essay, without illustrations, was reprinted in Resource Library on April 4, 2009 with the permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text please contact the author directly through either this phone number or web address:


The Picture Tells the Story: The Drawings of Joseph E. Yoakum

by Mark Pascale


Unlike some celebrated self-taught artists, Joseph E. Yoakum (1890-1972) enjoyed a measure of success and attention for his art while he was alive. Because he was befriended by a significant-in-their-own-right group of artists who were sensitive to his creative output, we know a lot about Yoakum and, to some degree, how he made his work. However, a great deal of the writing about him and his work has focused instead on poetic interpretations of his remarkable landscape inventions.[1] Importantly, one author, Derrel B. DePasse, has contributed valuable insight into the facts surrounding his early life, and revealed a rich legacy of printed ephemera and pop culture to which Yoakum may have been exposed. [2]

All of this certainly contributes to what we might imagine about the artist's intuition, based upon his lived experience and memory. Less often in the literature has there been an analysis of Yoakum's creative evolution and the trajectory of his process. This may partially owe to a collective and deserved respect for revered art historian Whitney Halstead's unpublished manuscript about Yoakum's art and life.[3] Many writers have used it, but its intellectual and analytical merits have largely been bypassed.

As the current caretaker of Halstead's collection (drawings, sketchbooks, ephemera, slides, manuscript and notes, bequeathed to The Art Institute of Chicago in 1979), I was inspired by Intuit's invitation to organize this exhibit to re-read the Halstead manuscript for a fresh perspective on this body of work. What it reminded me of, first and foremost, was the social milieu for collecting Yoakum's drawings by Halstead and his students and artist friends, including Ray Yoshida, Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Roger Brown, Lori Gunn, Karl Wirsum, Phil Hanson, Christina Ramberg and others. Yoshida, a beloved and influential professor at the School of the Art Institute, was an astute collector of many things, but his Yoakum holdings are noteworthy for their chronological and stylistic depth; like Halstead, he has a virtually complete representation of what Yoakum created from roughly 1962 through 1972. Moreover, he has rarely exhibited many of his Yoakum drawings, and most of them are in fine condition -- close to what they looked like when they left the artist's South Side studio.

Daniel Berger is a more recent enthusiastic collector of Yoakum's drawings, and has amassed an impressive group of 10 sheets to date. When he made his collection available to me, I was struck by its range, as well as the fact the drawings had changed hands over the years and had been subjected to various kinds of framing, exposure to potentially damaging environmental phenomena and possibly to conservation interventions. Therefore, this exhibition has been organized with the idea of providing an opportunity for the public to consider and compare all of these aspects of Yoakum's work through focused groups of drawings from only two collections.

Additional works were added to make specific points-the two portraits of Kathy Poillian, made at different times and possibly traced (cat. 6 and 7) -- or because they showed different aspects of the artist's vision. For example, one drawing, Julian Alps . . . (cat. 17), was probably done around 1963-64, but the artist "Re coppy" it on "10/2-67." And, not least, Mt. Knockmealdown . . . (cat. 8) is packed with just about every desirable motif in a Yoakum drawing -- a cornucopia of planar complexity, a portrait line of individual tress, and an unusually prominent and nearly naturalistic fence line that contradicts the scale and spatial movements implied by many of the other drawn features.

The title for this exhibition derives from my own thoughts about Yoakum and his drawings. The vast majority of the drawings are inscribed with specific locations -- allegedly identifying the place depicted. But Yoakum referred to his drawing process as a "Spiritual Unfoldment."[4] And, although he never fully explained this mysterious process (and given its evocative implications, why would anyone want him to?), in essence, it involved his making the drawing and coming to a realization of where or what the image depicted.

Once he arrived at this conclusion, he inscribed the drawing with the location. Judging from the style and tool(s) he used to make some inscriptions, it is very likely that not all were labeled at the time he made the image. Everyone who has admired a Yoakum drawing has asked himself or herself whether, in fact, the drawing truly represents the place that Yoakum has identified so precisely. It is well known that Yoakum professed his world travel, so in one sense, we have to place some trust in his word. At least one author has shown that it is highly likely that the artist traveled to many of the places he claimed to have visited.[5] Still, while a drawing might resemble general or specific features of a place in his professed travel itineraries, what matters most in the end is how Yoakum drew it.[6] This idea is conveyed compellingly by the artist in a 1962 ballpoint pen drawing from Yoshida's collection, which is inscribed at the upper left White Rock Mtn Face at Luck Missouri by Joseph E. Yoakum 2-2-62, and in a different pen at lower left Mt Dashani Bejeda Ethiopia. While it is fascinating to consider the likelihood that the picture tells two stories and that both landscapes have similar attributes, Yoakum's indecision -- if that's what it was -- underscores our need to pay attention first and foremost to what and with what he has drawn.

Coincidentally, another drawing in Berger's collection exhibits a similar post-visualization rethinking by Yoakum. In that one, Route #41 Through Big Smokey mts: between Nashville Tennessee and [either] Birmingham Alabama [or] Atlanta Georgia (cat. # XX), there is a deliberate change of mind, because Yoakum literally crossed out the first inscription and wrote another below it. Also, a drawing from Lisa Stone and Don Howlett's collection (cat. # XX), which has an inscription faded beyond recognition, suffers not at all from its flawed condition. It is possibly the most eccentric and monumental of all the Yoakum drawings I have seen, regardless of where it was that the artist remembered it. Thus, the picture itself -- its visual apparatus -- tells us a story with or without an inscription. One early drawing in the Art Institute's collection is inscribed on the front simply over, and the verso is inscribed Moraine Lake Banff National Park Alberta Canada.[7] If it were framed, we would never know to which place the artist ascribed it, but in no way does this interfere with our appreciation for Yoakum's invention. Over the course of his short career, Yoakum drew with a minimal variety of tools, and exclusively on papers of average quality. Halstead insisted that, despite his frequent contact with the artist and years of studying his drawings, his best estimation of Yoakum's evolution was speculative at best. He helpfully identified five distinct periods in Yoakum's development.[8]

The earliest dated drawings are from 1962, and are exemplified by West Coast Range British Columbia Canada. Road Between U.S. and Alaska (cat. 4), and White Rock Mtn Face at Luck Missouri.

Yoakum's drawings from roughly 1962 to 1963 were done with graphite or ballpoint pen, usually on sheets of paper in about three sizes (8 x 10 in., 9 x 12 in. and 12 x 18 in.). The papers are either ivory or cream wove sheets similar to stationery, or a tan wove paper that used to be called manila paper.[9] In the two cited works, Yoakum's characteristic line moves freely over the sheet, creating undulating shapes and spaces in the landscape. Many aficionados of Yoakum's drawings have speculated as to how he made them. Some guess that he started on one edge and worked to the opposite until finished. An unusual sheet in Halstead's bequest suggests this may be true, and that the artist characteristically outlined his forms before filling them with detail. (Fig. 1 -- no title, nd, blue ballpoint pen and brown fiber-tipped pen on off-white woven paper, 1979.259) Typical of this period, the artist's "fills" of trees, which were among his earliest tropes and maintained throughout his career, are static and ordered, as if laid out with a ruler. This is especially true of the lower center section of West Coast Range. Also evident are the areas of close hatching, which he used to "color" the edges of shapes, shape the contours of the ground plane and indicate what seem to be waterfalls or melting snow at high elevation. He also employed squiggly doodle lines, which sometimes represent water, or indicate fissures in rock formations, and occasionally these fissures don't correspond to anything precise. An example of how eccentric these marks could be is evident in the Berger sheet Route # 41 . . . , in which these marks take on the character of opposing "Vs," which distinctly animates the rock formations. Very typical of these early drawings is Yoakum's use of a single contour line to demarcate the composition and primary shapes.

One of these earliest drawings (Fig. 3, not in exhibition) looks like a layout for a "paint by numbers" piece, with notes for how to fill a compositional pocket -- "w" [water?], "L" [lake?], "D," "Light Stone" and "grass."[10] While there are many extant drawings that do not include all of these features, it's remarkable how quickly Yoakum established a habitual vocabulary for the drawings that he would continue to employ into the early 1970s. Yet, as the works show, Yoakum expanded and elaborated all of these ideas, just as a school-educated artist also would.

An especially beautiful and complex drawing of Yoakum's second phase is Lime Stone Query of Ash Grove Lime & Portland Cement Company Ash Grove Missouri (cat. 12). Halstead identified this phase as occurring in drawings dated 1964 and 1965, during which time the author hypothesizes that Yoakum's invention accelerated and "he may have hit his stride of [making] one a day, sometimes more."[11] Drawings from this period tend to be made on the manila paper, and Yoakum also introduced watercolor and some examples of colored crayons and pencils.

The region where Yoakum grew up -- southwest Missouri, into the northwest corner of Arkansas -- is a frequently cited location of drawings from this time; for example, Mississippi River near north side of Hannibal Missouri (cat. 15) and Lime Stone Query of Ash Grove Lime & Portland Cement Company Ash Grove Missouri. These drawings exhibit the media and features consistent with Halstead's observations about works from this phase, and they also exhibit vastly different points of evolution.

The Lime Stone "Query" -- a company where Yoakum was employed -- has a halting composition. Clusters of trees in the foreground and middle ground are very much smaller than the line of evergreens just beyond the quarry. In the foreground, a fallen, denuded tree illogically dwarfs two clusters of trees to its south and west, but agrees in scale with the locomotive just behind it.

As is often the case in these still early drawings, suggestions of spatial movement into the drawing are developed via planes, as opposed to strong diagonals in the composition and/or one-point perspective. Even the snaking river leading up to the quarry appears to move laterally, rather than to a point of diminution. Moreover, the train and two small houses in the middle ground are drawn in flat profile views (one of the houses is flattened, despite its being shown in three-quarters view).

Only the grove of trees at left center are drawn with a sense of perspective, and they give the drawing a needed counterpoint to its insistent flatness, as well as to the unusual angular lines that Yoakum used to describe cuts from the quarry wall.[12] Another similarly complex drawing probably from this period is Monmoth Ridge of Ozark Mtn. Range ad Spring River Near Monmoth Springs, Arkansas. On St. Louis & San Francisco Railway (cat. 11). Like the former drawing, this one is composed of many discrete pockets of terrain, but it shows incremental sophistication in the variety and sizes of the pockets, as well as more fluid movements spatially from one position in space to the next. Transitions between adjoining areas are subtler, and Yoakum's invention of individuated plants and trees shows his growing confidence and freedom.

This long list of graphic style and marks differs profoundly from Mississippi River near north side of Hannibal Missouri, and Cluster Valley near Johansburg Vermont (cat. 15 and 18). Both of these latter drawings are lyrical in their layout, and the contour line used to describe major rhythms of the trees and undulations in the landscape and rock formations is sinuous. In addition, Yoakum exhibits a growing ability to duplicate forms as pattern without appearing redundant. This is especially vivid in the Yoshida sheet in which Yoakum laid out tiers of said patterned formations, punctuating them with curvilinear hatching. Few artists have stretched the aesthetic limitations of a ballpoint pen as far as Yoakum did in this drawing and similar sheets. Although he made many more drawings using colored drawing materials, the early sheets drawn on white paper with ballpoint pens alone, or with ballpoint and graphite, show the artist's structure and inventiveness at his most immediate and essential.

All of Yoakum's early work was created before he was widely known to the art and critical community. [13] Henceforth Halstead postulated three additional distinct periods of development, but the so-called third and fourth somewhat collapse on each other, and the last is represented almost exclusively in his sketchbooks, which were not available for this exhibition.

A key distinction of the drawings made from 1966 onward is Yoakum's consistent employment of chalk pastels and colored pencils, which he typically smudged or polished to create blended skies and broad shapes of evenly distributed color. About this technique, Yoakum commented, "I found some pastel colored pencils. You can use them, and then you take a ball of bathroom tissue and polish it so it looks like a water color."[14] Also, he stopped using the manila paper and stopped shellacking or varnishing his drawings.[15] What also is clear is that as demand for his drawings increased, he took to making copies of earlier drawings.[16] This he accomplished by stapling the primary drawing to a second clean sheet, with a piece of carbon paper between them, then drawing over it with a pen or pencil. The "copied" drawing might have been colored, while the original was not. Although I could find no evidence of carbon transfer or staple holes on Mt. Liotian in Greater Khiangian Mtn. Range near Titrihar Deep Southern China East Asia (Cat. 13), allegedly this drawing was sold to Yoshida with the "understanding that it was unfinished and he said [to Yoshida], jokingly, 'You can take it home and color it yourself.' "[17]

Mt. Liotian and another drawing, a Rock in The Baltic Sea Near Stockholm Sweden E. Europe (cat. 3), present another intriguing case study, because both employ a seemingly unique rock formation with differing contexts and consequences. In the latter, Yoakum drew a "portrait" of this rock formation with three peaks, crevices and a small grouping of trees -- a small volcanic island near a coastline. All of the rocks, as well as the water, also have been extensively articulated with an array of finely detailed undulating fissures and waves. The water is especially vivid, violently undulating close to the rocks while giving way to calmer sea toward the horizon.

This drawing is not dated, but it has evidence of carbon transfer reinforced with pens, and staple holes at the lower left and right corners, indicating that it was copied from another source. As the central feature of the previous work (Mt. Liotian), a similar rock form has been elaborated, with greater separation between the tallest central peak and its flanks. In this drawing the rocky grouping is surrounded not by a body of water, but improbably -- for its apparent great height -- it is practically floating in a vast evergreen wilderness. Its surface articulation is rather pat compared with the Rock in The Baltic Sea, but seeing these remarkable conceptions side by side reveals more of Yoakum's innate ability to remember forms and shapes. He may have compressed them in one drawing and stretched them in another, thereby yielding startling differences of space, and in this comparison, context.

Aside from the differences in media from one distinct phase in Yoakum's work to another, what is clearly different in the later work is the artist's confidence in his vision and freedom in construction. Repetition in these drawings is never static. For example, the Stone/Howlett, Mt. Knockmealdown . . ., Mt. Pico and Bandeira of Bandeira minas Gerais section near castelo Brazil so America, and Mt Horseback in Rockey Knob Range near Chillicothe Ohio all share intensely varied patterns in their compositions, but Yoakum drew them with complete lack of inhibition. It is this trust he placed in his invention that best characterizes his development and high achievement from the late 1960s through 1971. Also unique in this last phase are his prized vertical compositions such as the Stone/Howlett sheet and Mt Pikes Peak the mtn of Pleasure Highest foot Bridge near Colorado Springs Colorado in U.S.A. (cat. 9).

The massive and humorous (or terrifying) orange-colored peaks in the Stone/Howlett drawing seem like capricious elaborations of two similarly orange-colored peaks in Mt Pikes Peak. This again illustrates Yoakum's gift for recasting familiar forms and giving them a continuous life. Yoshida and many of his friends and students placed similar importance on compulsively exploring the morphology of forms in their work. If they found nothing else of interest in their discovery of Joseph Yoakum's work, this congruence of visual philosophy more than gave the group independent justification for their explorations, and gives the rest of us what my good friend Bill Thurmond calls a nutrient-rich experience, which I hope this exhibition and catalogue will provide.


1 See, for example, Animistic Landscapes: Joseph Yoakum Drawings, exh. cat. (Philadelphia, Pa.: Janet Fleisher Gallery),1989.

2 Derrel B. DePasse. Traveling the Rainbow: The Life and Art of Joseph E. Yoakum. New York: Museum of American Folk Art; Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

3 Whitney Halstead, "Joseph Yoakum," unpublished manuscript, c. 1977, in Whitney Halstead Papers, Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

4 Norman Mark, "My drawings are a spiritual unfoldment," Chicago Daily News-Panorama (11 November, 1967, p. 2. This article was published on the occasion of Joseph Yoakum's first public exhibition at The Whole, a coffee shop in the basement of St. Bartholemew's Church, Chicago.

5 DePasse, op. cit.

6 For an entry about one of the Art Institute's Yoakum drawings, I was able to verify in a travel book that there are rock formations near Brisbane, Australia similar to those depicted by the artist. See Selections from The Art Institute of Chicago: African Americans in Art, The Art Institute of Chicago: Museum Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2, p. 212.

7 Probably dating from 1962 or 1963, the work was drawn with graphite and blue ballpoint pen on cream wove paper, 216 x 273 mm, Bequest of Whitney Halstead, 1979.195.

8 Halstead, op. cit., pp. 25-45.

9 In the Whitney Halstead Bequest, there were several early drawings on a paper with a mechanically imprinted texture, made to simulate the laid textures of expensive writing papers.

10 This drawing is part of the Art Institute's collection, Spring River Monmouth Springs Ark South Tip of Ozark Mts., probably 1962, graphite on cream wove paper, Whitney Halstead Bequest, 1979.241. This drawing also is distinguished for the way Yoakum used masses of trees naturalistically, as if he copied a postcard view, and not to indicate pockets tucked into mountains, or to suggest deep space.

11 Halstead, op. cit., p. 28.

12 The Art Institute has a drawing of the same subject, probably earlier and possibly the model upon which the Berger drawing was based, although comparing them yields significant differences. That drawing is Ash Grove Lime Stone Querry Ash Grove Mo, c. 1962, graphite on ivory wove paper, Whitney Halstead Bequest, 1979.194. Prophetically, in this drawing, Yoakum described the quarry yield in the train car similarly to the way he would come to describe tree groupings. And, his treatment of excavated limestone looks forward to his treatment of vast mountain ranges, each one of the overlapping organic stone shapes might become a large clump in a later drawing, and each of these is articulated with a simple squiggle, which later might become a cascade of water from snow melting above the timber line. This drawing is one of many that Yoakum inscribed "Modle" or "Patron." These terms refer to drawings that must have been used to trace from to create second, third, or more variations, some of which were drawn many years after the originals. The Mills/Petry drawing represents such a case, because clearly to me, Yoakum was indicating on the "Modle" that he "Re coppy" it, and its style, support, and coloration are all typical of drawings from the second phase described in this paragraph.

13 His contact with a knowing audience commenced with Professor John Hopgood's knock on Yoakum's door and the exhibition he helped arrange with Harvey Pranian at The Whole in 1967.

14 Norman Mark, op. cit. Some close observers of Yoakum's evolution have suggested -- rightly so -- that this new technique was easier to control than watercolor. His statement in Mark's article that the effect was similar to watercolor, which he employed in the earlier phase of his development, would seem to justify the former idea. For further thoughts about Yoakum's transition from watercolor to dry colored media also see Halstead, p. 39.

15 No one knows for sure why Yoakum applied varnish or shellac to his work. It is possible that he read about the use of varnish on paintings in one of his "How To" books. Or, he may have thought that varnish would protect his drawings from the elements. Certainly the artists who began to visit him in 1968 suggested that the manila paper was fugitive, and prone to damage. Yoakum could see for himself that these sheets darkened very quickly when exposed to the light of his storefront, and/or were hung in his window, and became brittle. He became quite responsible about these drawings as people started to buy them. Ray Yoshida bought a drawing that was apparently wrapped by Yoakum in a homemade paper folder, inscribed along the edge "THIS IS A VERY FRAGILE, DELICATE, SHELLACED J.Y." Ironically, the strip of paper on which he wrote the inscription has faded to a deep tan where it was exposed to light, underscoring the seriousness of this problem. A humorous but apt note in Halstead's manuscript observes, "By 1967-68 he no longer used such paper . . . 'it was very bad.' He kept it in a stack in one of his storage shelves and referred to it as his 'spanish paper.' " Halstead, op. cit., p. 29.

16 Among the ephemera collected by Whitney Halstead are two curious cover sheets with the following inscriptions: "These are my copyrights not to be sold at no time 2/14-67&68" and "1968-69 Don't mix with other dates." These apparently were covers for stacks of drawings, kept organized by the artist. The first shows evidence that Yoakum somewhat confused the terms "copyright" and "copy." Halstead observed that he would use these terms interchangeably, but in this case used copyrights to imply that they were his originals, from which he made copies. These were often drawn on his prized "Spanish" paper, and several in the Halstead bequest to the Art Institute have suffered losses, splits, and broken corners because of the inherent brittleness of the paper.

17 Halstead, p. 38.



I am indebted to several people and institutions that have helped to foster my continuous study of Joseph E. Yoakum. First, I must thank Intuit for its dedication to and support of artists whose unorthodox methods or introduction to the art world so often falls under the radar of art museums and the art world at large. At Intuit, I thank Jan Petry for her commitment to including me in matters pertaining to self-taught artists -- matters that my sometimes-stodgy base institution ignores. Through their intellectual and financial commitments, Jan, Cleo Wilson and Bob Roth all have inspired me to keep trying to bring this important and aesthetically rich idiom to a broad audience. Also at Intuit, I thank Robert Reinard for his help with all arrangements for the exhibition, David Syrek for his fine catalogue design and Janet Franz for her careful reading of the text.

My years at The Art Institute of Chicago have allowed my close contact with Joseph Yoakum's art and Whitney Halstead's still important written study of the work. My colleagues at the school and museum have been willing partners in looking. I am especially indebted to the Art Institute's paper conservation staff, who have enhanced my appreciation of Yoakum's methods. To them, Jan Burandt (who set up treatment protocols for the Art Institute's 1995 Yoakum exhibition), David Chandler, Harriet Stratis, Margo McFarland and Chris Conniff-O'Shea -- who all have made sensitive treatments of Yoakum drawings in Chicago -- my deep appreciation and respect. Over the years, many artists have shared with me their memories and admiration of Yoakum and Halstead -- Roger Brown, Ted Halkin, Phil Hanson, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Mike Noland, Christina Ramberg, Lisa Stone and Ray Yoshida. I am grateful to all of them for these gifts. Not least, I am indebted to Douglas Druick, Prince Trust curator of prints and drawings, and Searle curator of Medieval through modern European painting and sculpture at the Art Institute. He showed faith and honor in allowing me to organize the first exhibition of Yoakum drawn from Whitney Halstead's bequest, and in doing so allowed me to occupy the conservation staff for several months to evaluate and deftly treat the nearly 200 drawings owned by the Art Institute.

Finally, I thank the lenders to this exhibition, Ray Yoshida (and his Chicago caretaker Shayle Miller, for enabling my visits), Dan Berger, Angie Mills and Jan Petry, Russell Bowman Art Advisory, Mike and Cindy Noland, Lisa Stone and Don Howlett, and Suellen Rocca, curator/director of exhibitions at Elmhurst College. And a special acknowledgment to Dan Berger, whose enthusiasm and financial contribution made this publication possible.

About the author

Mark Pascale is Curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings at The Art Institute of Chicago.


About the exhibition

The Picture Tells the Story: The Drawings of Joseph E. Yoakum is on display at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art from January 16, 2009 to June 27, 2009.

This exhibition of Joseph Yoakum's visionary landscapes is curated by Mark Pascale, caretaker of Whitney Halstead's collection bequeathed to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1979. Halstead was an early collector and advocate for Yoakum's work and his collection includes a number of exceptional works by Yoakum.

Over the course of his short career, Yoakum drew with a minimal variety of tools, and exclusively on papers of average quality. The vast majority of the drawings are inscribed with specific locations -- allegedly identifying the location depicted. Yoakum referred to his drawing process as a "Spiritual Unfoldment." Although he never fully explained this mysterious process, in essence, it involved his making the drawing and coming to a realization of where or what the image depicted. Once he achieved this conclusion, he inscribed the drawing with the location. Everyone who has admired a Yoakum drawing has asked himself or herself whether, in fact, the drawing truly represents the place that Yoakum has identified so precisely. While the drawings may resemble general or specific features of a place in his professed travel itineraries, what matters most in the end is how Yoakum drew it.

Intuit has also published a catalog in conjunction with the exhibition and can be purchased in Intuit's gift shop or online. (above exhibition information courtesy of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art)


Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library on April 4, 2009 with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on April 4, 2009.

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