Friday, August 12, 2022 Aug 12, 2022
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Recording Artist

Architecture student Jay Cantrell likes to keep his sketchbook handy. His drawings of Dallas’ changing skyline make him equal parts artist and historian.
By D Magazine |
DRAWING ROOM: Architecture student Jay Cantrell found plenty of inspiration for his drawings thanks to the views from his Kirby Building apartment. Cantrell unwinds by playing a piano he had to audition to purchase. “The guy wanted to sell only to someone who would play it, so I had to do a small audition,” he laughs.

“I always have my notebook,” Jay Cantrell says matter-of-factly. Like the in situ artists of ancient Greece who sketched cities as a matter of record, the 35-year-old architect enjoys documenting Dallas’ changing cityscape. “This was before photography. You were trained to draw quickly. And these drawings weren’t considered works of art—they were considered a documented journey.”

Unlike the dwellings of many single thirtysomethings, the TV is dwarfed by Jay Cantrell’s other passions: books and art. “The television doesn’t work anymore, but for some reason I still have it. I have a record player and piano that I entertain myself with when I am not doing art or architecture,” he says.

Cantrell has been drawing since he can remember. “I think someone just gave me a pencil and paper when I was about three years old,” he says. He grew up in Sherman—his grandfather was a civil engineer who actually laid out some of the streets in the city—and found inspiration everywhere. “The community was always in touch with its roots,” he explains. “There’s a very strict preservation league there that protects public buildings and churches.” This meant that Cantrell had plenty of subjects for study, from the 100-year-old Victorian houses to the stately Carnegie Library built in 1914. Several prominent architects such as Mark Lemmon, Frank Welch, and Michael Dennis are from Sherman. All that combined with reading books, and meeting other artists, served as a sort of prep school that readied him for an architecture course of study in college.

The problem? Most colleges don’t offer architecture as an undergraduate degree option. But Cantrell discovered that not only does UT-Arlington offer it, the college has one of the top schools of design in the country. Even better, “It’s affordable and still in Texas,” Cantrell enthuses. “The teachers were from Harvard and Princeton. It was wonderful for instilling design pedagogy.” He says that he was lucky to be in an environment where poetry and painting were encouraged in architecture. “It wasn’t about drafting and vocation. I got theory. They instilled strong sketching,” he says.

He also had the opportunity to study in Rome, Florence, Verona, and surrounding Italy. Those five weeks changed his life. “There’s nothing else like it,” he sighs.

That’s why he was so surprised by how excited he found himself when he moved to downtown Dallas after graduation, where he later worked for prominent architect Ralph Duesing for nine years. To most, Dallas is all about the flash and the new. In fact, in many cases, houses, churches, and buildings with any history are torn down to make way for something modern and shiny. But that’s not what Cantrell saw from his apartment in the landmark Kirby Building at Main and Akard streets. “I didn’t realize the city had such a rich architectural history. It’s so uniquely urban.” He began drawing immediately. “The first day I moved in, I couldn’t sketch enough. I filled up five sketchbooks the first year. There was so much to capture.”

Cantrell’s drawings depict the older, abandoned buildings downtown as they undergo face-lifts. “It’s interesting to capture the juxtaposition,” he says. “It’s nice to visually document the theater of construction.” Since he lived downtown, he could forecast—and document—change before the average person even noticed. For example, one morning he walked by the Federal Reserve Building. “Don’t tell me they are going to knock it down,” he thought. He looked across the street and saw rubble. He immediately began sketching and taking photos. “It was amazing to see this big wrecking ball and crane in front of these Doric columns.” The scene later became the subject of a large painting.

(clockwise from top left) Jay Cantrell’s favored Derwent pencils. A bust of Aphrodite that Cantrell found in the trash. One of Cantrell’s many sketch books.  He goes through about 50 a year—“My friends and family usually give them to me as gifts during the holidays and birthdays,” he says. After doing the initial drawings, Cantrell brings his work back to a comfortable light-filled workstation where he completes them. “In Texas, it’s 105 degrees outside. You have to do it that way,” he says.

That’s pretty much how Cantrell works. Whether serendipitous or planned, his sketching journeys often lead to a find. He sketches first, then takes photos. “Later, I take [my work] back to the studio and work on it. In Texas, it’s 105 degrees outside. You have to do it that way,” he laughs. Back in the studio, he does a photo transfer in black and white so that the image looks like a historic print. From there, he sketches over the transfer in vivid colors, using Derwent watercolor pencils. “I take the old building in the transfer form, and then I draw on top of it with the building’s new look. In early stages of renovation, there is ambiguity. There are so many layers with scaffolding. You can’t tell what’s under it,” he explains. And like the layers of the construction project, Cantrell’s works are in constant progress—changes to the building painted almost in real time.

“Dallas has so much life and fervor,” Cantrell says. “You see these cranes—it’s like the city of London. I haven’t seen anything like that in an American city. For an architect, it’s a vital feeding ground.”

At the moment, his artwork is the only thing keeping Cantrell connected to the Dallas skyline—he’s currently getting his masters in architecture at the University of Virginia. He plans to move back to Texas once he graduates. “I would like to come back to Dallas. I’ve had several offers to have shows in galleries there,” he says. His artwork is represented by Art Ability in the Dallas Design District; in years past, he has exhibited at the Gachet Gallery, Flotsam, and Fusion Home Fashion. In the meantime, he continues to focus on his studies and creative pursuits. Rather than playing with a PlayStation, he instead uses the computer to scan pieces into Adobe Photoshop and then plays with layering colors. He didn’t have a cell phone until recently (“It’s just another piece of software you have to learn to use,” he opines.), so trivial phone calls aren’t much of a distraction either. Instead, he maintains that music, art, and architecture are all the entertainment he needs. “Those things are fun for me.”