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Building a life from clay, wood, & paint

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One of Nelson County’s best-known artists and the wife who helped build his career celebrate 40 years since the day they — accidentally — discovered Bardstown.

By Erin L. McCoy

On their way back to Berea from Cave City, Jim and Jeannette Cantrell were feeling discouraged. They had picked a few likely cities off the map — places Jim could finally set up a full-time pottery and painting studio. But they hadn’t liked Cave City at all, and didn’t much like Elizabethtown, either.

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“We were heading back on the Blue Grass and Jim saw a sign that said, ‘Visit Historic Bardstown,’” Jeannette recalled. Almost on a whim, they turned off the road.

One of the first things they saw were bourbon warehouses. Berea — where Jim had been serving as an artist-in-residence — was dry. Then they came upon St. Joseph Cathedral.

“We looked at each other and we wondered if we were still in Kentucky,” Jeannette said.

Something about the town’s charm struck the couple instantly. They still recalled the feeling 40 years later, sitting at the table in the center of their gallery and bookstore — also their home of 14 years — on West Stephen Foster Avenue in Bardstown. Jim had built the table, along with the kitchen cabinets.

“It was absolutely Mayberry,” Jeannette said.

“The streets were square,” Jim recalled — practically the first straight streets they had seen since they moved from the Nebraskan plains, where straight roads go on for hundreds of miles.

“No fast food places,” Jeannette added.

“Like the town I grew up in, only five, 10 times bigger,” Jim said.

“At that point, we said, this is it.”

Finding a place to set up a studio at first seemed a challenge for a young family in a town with few artists at the time. But city officials soon directed them to Spalding Hall — at the time a run-down “white elephant” of 75 rooms, in danger of demolition.

So with son Sean, 5, and daughter Vennita, 4, in tow, the couple moved into the third floor of a building with no electricity or water, and began building a kiln for Jim to use in the basement.

“We swept the glass and the trash and literally put down some plastic and camped out,” Jeannette said.

In those first days, they borrowed water from the Stephen Foster Drama actors who were staying in Flaget Hall next door. But electricity and water were hooked up by the time the Cantrells opened their Bardstown Art Gallery Nov. 5, 1971.

The kiln had been built by then, as well, though not without some controversy.

“The fire marshal came by and inspected it,” Jim recalled. The downdraft car kiln was large enough to walk inside. The marshal became convinced Jim needed to install an aluminum-lined flue to direct out the smoke.

“I said, ‘That won’t work,’ and they said, ‘That’s what the code calls for.’”

So when he fired up the kiln for the first time, firefighters and the gas company were in attendance.

“They were all sitting there waiting to see the thing blow up, because they had never seen one of those things before,” Jim said. Sure enough, the kiln could reach up to 2300 degrees Fahrenheit, and it melted the aluminum.

“The fire marshal said, ‘Well, you’re right, you know more about this than we do. Do what you need to do.’”

The Cantrells stood out in their first years in Bardstown, but they were soon able to settle into the community.

“They knew that we were just strange, but I think we were more welcomed, in a way, because we helped save that beloved building,” Jeannette said. Some Bardstonians even began referring to Jim as the “resident artist,” though he maintains the term doesn’t make sense.

Among the friends they made were a few monks from the Abbey of Gethsemani, who in the mid- to late-1970s started coming by the studio for pottery lessons.

“Their fee was they had to bring in a loaf of their homemade bread when they came,” Jeannette smiled.

When the monks closed an earlier gift shop, they asked the Cantrells if they’d like to sell some books by Thomas Merton, a well-known writer who was once a monk at Gethsemani, out of their gallery. The collection soon expanded, and in time, Jeannette became the go-to source for texts by Merton.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” she said.

Jim was attaining national fame, showing in galleries in St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati. He was featured in national magazines for his pottery, but soon, he began to transition toward more painting, and that career took off as well. All the while, Jeannette was responsible for the business side of things — submitting work for exhibitions, photographing and documenting the history of each piece, making contacts with other artists — and, on her own time, she learned how to use a printing press and printed a book written by a monk about his first and last memories of Thomas Merton.

Meanwhile, much of Jim Cantrell’s work came to reflect Bardstown — even Bardstown as it changed through the years. Images of St. Joseph Cathedral, of the Harrison Smith house on Court Square still painted white with a yellow door, and other historic landmarks lined the streets of Bardstown for its 225th anniversary celebration. A total of 225 of Jim’s works that had remained in Bardstown up until the 2005 celebration hung in storefronts for the celebration.

By that time, the Cantrells had moved out of Spalding Hall, leaving their kiln behind. Their children had grown up, Vennita pursuing an art career of her own, cutting and pasting intricate collages, focusing on the detail work as she did in the clay medium while her brother spun the potter's wheel for his allowance money in the old days in Spalding Hall.

Since the move, Jim’s paintings are different in a single, striking way.

“Because of the space over there, the paintings went from being very small to very large,” Jeannette said. Jim’s studio at Spalding Hall had 11-foot ceilings. “Now he’s got a little studio, so now the paintings are getting smaller.”

His subject matter remains as varied as ever. Jim has gone through periods painting people poised in front of carnival mirrors, portraits in watercolor, reflections of historic buildings on the facades of the modern. Jim prefers the historic.

Perhaps it’s the historic feel of Bardstown that has kept the Cantrells here for 40 years. Then again, maybe it can be attributed, as Jeannette believes, to a little divine intervention.

“I’m such a believer in signs from the Holy Spirit. The sign that we were supposed to be here in Bardstown was when we were driving back to Berea and we saw a sign for Pottershop Road.”