Written by Sherry Lucas | Photographed by Paul Wolf

Even on a relaxed Sunday afternoon, kicked back in the office at his Fondren home, there’s a hint of a story about Julian Rankin.

A clue’s in the cap. Carolina Mudcats. Is it the Carolina? The catfish? Both?

At the Mississippi Museum of Art since 2010, Rankin put a storytelling grace note on his role there.

He grew up in Oxford and, armed with a bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he first joined their ranks as PR coordinator.

He molded the job to suit the skills and interests of a man raised in the midst of Larry Brown and Bill Ferris, 100 yards from William Faulkner’s grave.

As a kid, Willie Morris pulled a dollar out of his ear. In a later letter reminding Morris of the trick, the author fulfilled Rankin’s request for a pic, adding the note, “To Julian, who has a gold mine in his ears.”

It’s one Rankin continues to mine. He’s now director of the museum’s new Center for Art and Public Exchange, funded by a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant.

The center will use art as a springboard for community conversations about equity, race and other significant issues, managing exhibitions and programs, bringing in artists for residencies and community engagement and more.

“I like to think of it, more broadly, as just making art relevant to contemporary communities. Conversation is currency in this day and age,” he said. “Conversation is cool.”

Rather than a typical lecture series, the focus would be “on interesting juxtapositions that allow people to see the stories behind the artworks and use those stories to solve issues that we all face, through creativity and open-minded thinking – which art represents to me.”

Consider the popular Third Thursday series and the way it urges partnerships across disciplines and showcases community voices. One program, with Shane Brown and David Rae Morris (sons of authors Larry Brown and Willie Morris, respectively), responded to a community event – the Mississippi Book Festival – with its own spin. The art element: photographer David Rae Morris gift of a picture of his dad with dog, Pete.

I like to think of Third Thursday as ‘under the Big Top,’ kind of a circus tent – anything can happen. It all starts with art.”

Rankin, who turns 31 in January and has lived in Fondren since 2014, was drawn to its creative collaborations, entrepreneurial spirit and fertile, accessible spaces.

“It felt like you’re right in the center of the cultural and creative lifeblood of the city,” and even the state. He’s got a passion for telling the stories of others – the esoteric fact, the intriguing connection, “the stuff I can’t make up.”

He has a book coming out this summer, “Catfish Dream: Ed Scott’s Fight for his Family’s Farm and Racial Justice in the Mississippi Delta” (University of Georgia Press), part of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Studies in Culture, People, and Place series.

So, that cap with its catfish logo? Rankin laughed. “The book is about catfish farming… I figure I need something to wear on the book tours.”

Rankin is a frequent contributor to FInd It In Fondren. For our winter issue, he wrote this piece on Governor and Mrs. William Winter.