Painting pictures with words
July 26, 2012

Jimmy Rankin was a NSCAD student in the 1980s.

When Jimmy Rankin (BFA 1988) was a kid growing up in Cape Breton, the epicentre of the art world wasn’t a far-off metropolis. For him, it was the place across the brook.

That place was the summer home of Robert Frank, one of the key figures of postwar American art, and his wife June Leaf, a painter and sculptor. They’ve been coming from New York City to the village of Mabou in Cape Breton since 1969.

“We’d go over and flip through his book, The Americans, me and my friends,” recalls Jimmy, on the phone from Mabou where he too is a summer resident these days. Since his career as a solo artist took off, he and his family, wife Mia and two children James and Chloe, are often in Nashville.

“We absorbed that inspiration, what they were about, the art they made, but maybe not totally understanding it all,” he adds.

So, it wasn’t such a huge leap from Mabou to Halifax and NSCAD. But by the time Jimmy got to NSCAD, his thoughts were of home and he started to write the memorable songs that got The Rankin Family rolling as the world’s pre-eminent Celtic bands in the 1990s—songs like Orangedale Whistle and Mull River Shuffle. It was at NSCAD that he bought his first guitar and began jotting down lyrics and performing, showing up at open mic nights in Halifax or heading off to gigs in Cape Breton on the weekends.

“There were so many talented people there, seriously talented,” says Jimmy. “I can’t say I was the best student in the world, but I kind of used the inspiration of being around these brilliant people, and focused on my songwriting. I think being at NSCAD really raised the bar for me.”

Jimmy pursued drawing and painting and even now, compares his songwriting to painting. “You build it and colour it until all of the images blend together as one complete portrait that tells some kind of story.”

He also says critiques that he first encountered at NSCAD have helped him in his career. “You really do learn to take criticism and not be too precious with things. I think that’s the biggest thing that I’ve been able to apply to my songwriting.”

It was in 1988, the same year that Jimmy graduated, that The Rankin Family took shape; Jimmy was the main songwriter for the pop and traditional group that also featured his brother John Morris and sisters Raylene, Cookie and Heather. In 1989, the family band released its first independent cassette, The Rankin Family, selling it from the back of their mom’s car and dropping it off at corner stores and gas stations throughout Cape Breton. It snowballed from there, with EMI rereleasing The Rankin Family and Fare Thee Well Love and propelling the siblings to a national, then international, stage.

After a decade of “riding the roots wave,” Jimmy struck out on his own.  As a solo performer, Jimmy has released albums including Song Dog (2001), Handmade (2003), Edge of Day (2007) and Forget About the World (2011) and collaborated with songwriters such as Gordie Sampson, Patricia Conroy and Keith Urban.

He doesn’t paint or draw so much anymore, but he’s taken advantage of his world travels to “see all the great art that I can.” And he encourages his own children to explore their creativity.

Bringing them back to Cape Breton is important too. “They’ve got so much space here, space to be kids and get their imaginations going. I think you need that kind of space to think, to be an artist … and the only thing I have to worry about is the coyotes.”