Home » Spotlight on the Arts | 2017 Derby artist is the first to be from Kentucky

Spotlight on the Arts | 2017 Derby artist is the first to be from Kentucky

By Lydia Bailey Brown


Bardstown artist Jim Cantrell made Kentucky Derby history this year, becoming the first Kentucky resident artist commissioned to do the officially licensed posters for the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks since the tradition began in 1997.

Cantrell’s artwork was featured on the 2017 Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks posters, tickets and souvenir racing programs, as well as a variety of merchandise such as T-shirts, bags and postcards.

Cantrell came to the attention of Churchill Downs Inc. based on recommendations from the Kentucky Arts Council as well as several other arts organizations.

The commission has elevated Cantrell, already a nationally known painter, into greater prominence and given an increased profile to the Nelson County community he and his wife, Jeannette, have called home for half a century.

The funny part is that none of it might have happened.

“At first I turned it down,” Cantrell said. “I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was the Kentucky Derby Festival and I didn’t know the two were separate entities, but people with knowledge of the industry said I needed to do this. Jeannette (Jim’s gallery manager and business partner) said I needed to do it to keep some exposure.”

That kind of attention is an asset in Bardstown, said Kim Huston, president of the Nelson County Economic Development Agency.

“Jim and Jeannette have been such good ambassadors for Bardstown during their 50 years here. We’re so lucky they chose to call Bardstown home,” Huston said. “With this opportunity, he’s generated a considerable amount of media attention for Bardstown. That’s invaluable.”

Cantrell’s distinction as the artist for the 2017 Derby poster, as well as the poster for the Kentucky Oaks, has created a buzz in Nelson County as out-of-town visitors come looking for the artist.

“I walk down the street and have people ask ‘Do you know where Jim Cantrell’s gallery is?’ or ‘How do I find that Derby poster?’” Huston said. “We were finally able to share with the rest of country what gems we have here in Jim and Jeannette.”

That relationship is not one-sided. The Cantrells frequently give their time for the betterment of Nelson County. When Bardstown was applying for Kentucky Arts Council Cultural District designation, they were on the local steering committee to make that happen. It was an example of how a town’s business community can recruit artists to help in local economic development efforts.

“They were really responsible for a lot of our success in that,” Huston said. “And as they travel across the country doing art shows, they recruit people to come visit us, to see what Bardstown is all about. They’re beloved. You see Jim and Jeannette at every event we have here in Bardstown. They participate in everything, donate themselves to all our events.”

“We tell them how much support Bardstown and Kentucky have given us,” Jeannette Cantrell said. “They’ve really made it possible for us to stay here as long as we have and make a living.”

In her forthcoming business recruitment efforts, Huston said she will include a signed copy of Cantrell’s Derby poster, along with the information package she shares with prospective business owners.

“He’s a shining example,” Huston said. “Here’s an individual who has chosen to live in Bardstown, start a business and become successful at it.

Cantrell, who was Berea College’s first potter-in-residence in 1970, is a former high school art teacher and associate professor of art in Nebraska. His paintings are in the permanent collections of 14 art museums in the U.S., including Kentucky’s Speed Museum and the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art. His work is in numerous private collections around the world and has been exhibited in the U.S. Embassy in Latvia as part of the Art in Embassies program. Cantrell is a two-time recipient of the Kentucky Arts Council’s Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship award in 1992 and 2006 and received a fellowship award from the Southern Arts Federation. He owns Bardstown Art Gallery, located at 214 W. Stephen Foster Ave. in Bardstown and on the web at bardstownartgallery.com.

Lydia Bailey Brown is executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council.