Joseph E. Yoakum made almost all of his known artwork during the last 10 years of his life, working in his storefront live-work space on Chicago’s South Side. The drawings he made there capture the varied and rich landscapes he encountered earlier in his life, during his extensive travels across the United States and the world. Yoakum’s handwritten inscriptions reveal locations as far flung as Vermont, Montana, Mexico, Slovenia, Sweden, France, and Italy. He was also engaged with the tenets of Christian Science, and his faith was central to his work. When asked how the images came to him, Yoakum replied, “The drawings are unfolded to me, a spiritual unfoldment. After I draw them, I have a spiritual remembrance and I know what is pictured.” The combination of memory and a Christian Science understanding of spirit in Yoakum’s work channels a bit of Creation itself. In Science and Health, one of Christian Science’s key texts, founder Mary Baker Eddy wrote, “Creation is ever appearing, and must ever continue to appear from the nature of its inexhaustible source.” Yoakum’s drawings are not one-to-one accounts of places he visited—they are not necessarily about resemblances—they instead move beyond a fixed, material understanding of place, tapping into something greater. This ever present sense of renewal in Yoakum’s images can also be found in his process; he frequently revisited the same compositions, using carbon paper to make copies on which he made small adjustments, and varied the landscapes’ colors.
In many drawings, it is as if Yoakum has captured the Earth in motion, just shifting into place. His landscapes’ rhythmic patterns give movement to traditionally rigid forms like boulders, forests, and mountains. A swath of uniform trees marches into position; moldable rock faces are barely set in their final shapes. We see this clearly in the smooth curves of the cliff faces in Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont, which appear as fluid as the body of water that passes through them. This effect is further enhanced by a wash of watercolor. Similarly, in Julian Alps Near Triest, Yugoslavia, the central rock formation softly sags into its pleated folds, resisting an understanding of rocks as hard and unmoving.
The landscapes Yoakum depicts also harken to a moment of divine creation in their lack of manmade structures. Seldom does the built landscape intrude upon the natural one with the exception of Yoakum’s empty, winding roads, which often flow seamlessly into the land. Mt Grazian in Maritime Alps near Emonaco Tunnel France and Italy by Tunnel marks a rare exception as the opening to a tunnel cuts into the center of the composition. The only figure that can be sensed in most images is Yoakum himself: the observer of these sites and the one who conjures them anew. In an unpublished manuscript, artist and art historian Whitney Halstead relates the following exchange with Yoakum, “I remarked that although I had grown up in Iowa, I had never seen mountains such as these. ‘Well, that was just because you never looked,’ he said with emphasis and finality.” Yoakum’s landscapes transcend traditional geography to show that the land is not just what we find on a map; land is entwined with lived experience, memory, and faith, and, in this way, is both deeply human and sacred.
Jordan Jones, Curatorial Fellow, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2021