NEW YORK — Many of the most renowned self-taught artists didn’t begin painting until late in life. Grandma Moses was 77, Clementine Hunter was in her 50s and Bill Traylor in his 80s. Most had to wait until their golden years, when they were no longer working to feed their families and had time to pursue a passion for art. For some, the decision came in a dream. Such was the case with Joseph E. Yoakum (1891–1972). Growing up poor on Chicago’s South Side with little schooling, he was drafted into the Army during World War I and served overseas before returning to Chicago. The troubled Yoakum led a mostly itinerant life, leaving home to work in circuses as a handyman, and, for a short time, he was institutionalized in a Chicago mental hospital.
Yoakum said that in 1962, when he was 71, he had a dream that compelled him to draw, and that his paintings were the result of “spiritual unfoldment.” While the details of that first dream are not known, they were powerful enough to prompt Yoakum to commit to a daily habit of painting and drawing, using whatever materials and paper he could get his hands on. A decade later, he had created about 2,000 artworks.
Auctioneer Steve Slotin of Slotin Folk Art in Buford and Gainesville, Georgia, said several self-taught artists utilize a technique called “memory painting.” “They would do scenes of their childhood memories and the way it used to be. Joseph Yoakum takes it further when he goes into almost a fantasy landscape,” Slotin said of the mountainous paintings for which the artist has won plaudits. Yoakum claimed to have personally seen the locations he painted, but they did not appear exactly as he drew them. “There were a lot more mountains and seas and other things going on now [in his artworks] that may not be true to the exact landscape. I’m not sure he saw all these places. I suspect he was probably looking at them in some books or magazines and interpreting these places in his artwork,” he said.
A clean and colorful painting, Yoakum’s view of Mt. Alpha of Brooks Range Near Wiseman, Alaska U.S.A., made $32,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022 at Slotin Folk Art. The signed and dated 1970 work on paper was done with pastel, ink and colored pencils and exemplifies attributes of the most appealing of his works. “He is not using archival paper; most of these artists were using whatever they could find. Paper deteriorates and tears along the edges,” Slotin said. “The higher-end pieces are bright and colorful paintings, where the paper is good and the varnish has not darkened or has no varnish at all — the quality is important.”
Yoakum’s landscapes, titled on the verso with handwritten descriptions of their locations, often feature craggy mountains that appeal to collectors. “I would say out of the landscapes, people are looking for almost a motion in the mountains and imagery in the hills where the cliffs are jagged and almost look like a face,” he said. “The more colorful the scene, the higher the price as far as collectors are interested.” A fitting example of this is his circa-1956 artwork Mt. McKinley Near Petersville, Alaska, which brought $29,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2023 at Slotin Folk Art.
Yoakum may have focused many of his paintings on majestic mountains, but he paid attention to details, too. According to Slotin, some of the other desirable pictorial elements in his work are dramatic skies with a sunburst or unusual clouds. “Sometimes, in the foreground, he will have a little bit of a cabin or a river, and all of these little things really add to the price and collectibility of his work,” he said. A piece executed with a draftsman’s precision is Casey Jones Home In Hills of Reno Nevada, which earned $28,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021 at Slotin Folk Art. In the foreground, the viewer sees not only a stand of trees next to a pink cabin, but a figure or perhaps an animal swimming in a pond.
Yoakum portrayed many scenes across the United States, but he also was fond of the Amazon and other far-flung locales. While not exceptionally vibrant, Sao Fall in Amazon River near Porto-de-Moz Brazil, SA, exemplifies the undulating mountain depictions many collectors actively seek in his artwork. This circa-1965-70 work on paper, rendered in ballpoint pen and colored pencils, achieved $20,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2022 at Toomey & Co. Auctioneers.
Collectors who favor Yoakum artworks with dramatic skies will chase paintings such as Merimac Mtn of Ozark Mtn Range and Route #66 Out of St. Louis to Lebanon Missouri, which shows striking cloud formations. This signed mixed media on paper realized $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021 at Hindman. In this piece, the artist is probably referencing the Meramec area of Missouri, which is known for its caverns.
Asked to sum up the appeal of Yoakum’s art, Slotin said it evinced the self-taught artist’s mode in that not only has the artist had no formal art training, but the artworks are free from outside influences. “When you look at a Joseph Yoakum, you see a Joseph Yoakum. You don’t see any influence from European masters, art teachers or anything else,” he said. “It is truly an original image, unlike most contemporary artists, where you’ll see influences from a broad spectrum of places.”
Since a groundbreaking MoMA retrospective of Joseph Yoakum in 2021-22, interest in his art has been growing and prices have been climbing. Those who have always prized self-taught and folk art needed no further validation of Yoakum’s mastery, but at long last, the rest of the world has started to embrace him.