How Joseph E. Yoakum, an Enigmatic Former Circus Hand and Untrained Artist, Found Drawing in His 70s—and the Hairy Who as Admirers

Joseph E. Yoakum, Waianae Mtn Range Entrance to Pearl Harbor and Honolulu Oahu of Hawaiian Islands (1968). Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1962, Joseph E. Yoakum had a dream that told him to make drawings. 

He was 71 then, a retired veteran and one-time circus hand living in Chicago. He had no experience making art. But for the next decade of his life—his last, it would turn out—drawing was what he did, churning out some 2,000 wondrous pieces in the process. 

Most came in the form of dreamy landscapes, tethered equally to the natural world and the artist’s own fantastical one: scalloped mountains and pristine pools of water, forests that look like heads of romanesco, and winding roads that disappear into the horizon line. A sense of yearning pervades it all.

The old adage about the Velvet Underground—that only 10,000 people bought their first album, but that every one of them started a band—also applies to Yoakum. Not many people saw his drawings, but those who did came away as immediate and lifelong fans. 

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