Art enriches life for Mohawk artist

They say art imitates life, or some variation of that.

Such is the case for Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory resident Kory Parkin. Well, the art part at least.

In Parkin’s case, art is enriching his life.

The 39-year-old was born in Toronto, but moved back to his mother’s home on the Reserve when he was a young boy. Make no mistake, Parkin calls the Reserve his home. It was while attending Quinte Mohawk School that Parkin began to find his calling. 

“Through public school and high school, I was always taking different art classes and I did a little bit on the side,” Parkin said in an interview days after his artwork was featured prominently by national sports broadcaster TSN. “But when I met my wife about 10 years ago, she pushed me to get into the art (more).”

So he did, creating his own take on many of his favourite sports teams and athletes.  

Initially, he was motivated by the support of his family, friends and Indigenous community. 

“It (started) with my parents really loving my stuff and then my friends and then the community really supporting me and giving me a lot of opportunities,” Parkin said. “So I kept with it and really enjoy doing it.” 

Art has a significant place within Indigenous culture and history and Parkin believes that his exposure to that culture played a role in his love affair with the medium. 

“Growing up, especially going to Quinte Mohawk School, there was a lot of learning (about) tradition and there was a lot of artwork in the hallways,” Parkin recalled, adding that in Grade 8, he was selected to attend a weeklong course at Queen’s University, during which he chose to study art history. “There, I really dug more into Indigenous art,” he said. Also, Parkin’s brother worked at the gift shop at the Indigenous reserve at Curve Lake, which added to his exposure to artwork and culture.

“I've been surrounded with a lot of (Indigenous) artwork,” he said, referencing one of his inspirations, Norval Morriseau, the late Indigenous Canadian artist from the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation. “I’ve been inspired by (his work in places) like our hallways at school and in households.”

Like a star athlete who studies his sport, Parkin is a student of his craft.  

“I just really enjoy doing it,” he said. “I was inspired by a lot of people whose work I grew up with, not just Indigenous people, but people like Picasso himself. I make my own little twist on it, but find ways to give back to the culture and just put a little bit of extra Indigenous into the art.”

As for his own style, Parkin blends Indigenous culture with personal meaning.

“As you can see in a lot of my art, I use a lot of circles,” he said. “I've always felt with Indigenous culture, the circle is an important symbol. Meeting circles are the sacred circle, you have dream catchers and it’s more of a symbol of life and the connectedness and wholeness and balancing that.”

When he’s working on a sports team’s logo, Parkin likes to study the club’s history as well. 

“When I do a lot of my logos, I try to incorporate a lot of circles, but also just look back at what made that team,” he said. “You're taking a lot of their old history, I've used a lot of skylines and stuff and trying to find the whole balance of where they came from to where they are now … not just making something cool, but having a little bit of extra meaning behind it. It's more exclusive to that city and to the team itself.”

And while Parkin sits on the cusp of a national recognition, he can certainly hasn’t forgotten who he is or where he came from. 

“I've had so many great opportunities (to do) a lot of amazing designs and stuff on the Reserve, like doing the Pride logo for our reserve and a smoking cessation program and stuff for Mohawk Family Services,” he said, beaming, before recalling the first project that left him in awe of what he’d accomplished, when one of his pieces was selected to be hung in the Cancer Centre of Southeastern Ontario at Kingston Health Sciences Centre. “They were looking for Indignenous artists and somebody from my community gave me one of the flyers so I entered my submission in and they selected me.”

Later, a close friend fighting cancer told Parkin seeing his work adorned the walls of the treatment centre was inspiring. 

“Just knowing it's in a spot where people who are dealing with something tough they’re going through and seeing (my artwork) and maybe it brings a smile to their face for the day really got me asking myself what can I do not only with art, but finding ways to also give back and help out other people,” Parkin said.

Since then, Parkin’s work has been gaining more and more attention, having been featured on TSN’s nationwide program Tim and Friends, as well as with Toronto Blue Jays ace pitch Alek Manoah. 

“I've been able to work in the past with Manoah,” Parkin said. “I've done a lot of stuff for his family and people from his area and other friends who work with the Blue Jays or play with the Blue Jays.” 

He also enjoyed some one-on-one time with one of his personal heroes, Canadian Football League legend Mike (Pinball) Clemons.

Parkin’s work was featured on a t-shirt that was used as part of a football school that featured the Grey Cup winning player and coach. When he attended the camp, he was immediately introduced to the football legend, an encounter Parkin has never forgotten.

“They just brought me right over Pinball Clemons and I was able to sit and talk to him for 15 or 20 minutes and got his autograph and a photo with him,” Parkin said, admitting he was shocked when intros were made and Clemons already knew who Parkin was. 

“I tried to hold it all in, but I still feel like I'm a fanboy at heart,” he said.  

Most recently, during the opening night of the current National Hockey League season, Pakin reimagined the team logos of Canada’s six clubs, giving each an Indigenous design, which were shared nationally by TSN. 

“I had one of the producers from TSN reach out and (say they) loved my art and wanted to work on something so we kept going back and forth on some ideas,” Parkin said. “We thought with the NHL season coming up, we would go with the Canadian teams. I put my own little twist on it. It just came down to making something unique and they shared it and it got such a great response.”

Examples of Pakin’s twists include the Leafs logo, which incorporates the Toronto Arenas T with the CN Tower, inside a throwback Maple Leafs logo, while the Montreal Canadiens logo includes the city’s skyline in front of the H inside the C. 

“It was pretty exciting,” he said of the project, which was also a practice in patience. “When I'm working with a lot of these people and teams, there's a lot of people it has to go through and a lot of time on their end (to get approvals),” Parkin said. “(The hardest part was) trying to hold in, knowing I had this opportunity. When I actually saw it posted, when I could share it, it was pretty exciting because now I was sharing with people who didn't necessarily even know I was working on something like that.”

Parkin also revealed that a plan to unveil an alternate Leafs jersey for the recent pre-season game versus Ottawa in Belleville were stalled due to manufacturing issues, but work with the club may happen down the road. In the meantime, he’s got plenty on his plate, thanks to his many successes.

“I have a lot of stuff coming up,” he said. “I've worked with the (Toronto) Argos on some stuff, I have some more local teams coming (I’m working with). I have an OHL team I'm working with this coming year to design a jersey as well.”

Art may not be imitating like for Pakin, but it certainly is opening a lot of doors. 

“Like I said, the support of the community has given me these opportunities.  I can't believe from where I started to where I am now.”

If the constant success isn’t motivation enough, Parkin and his wife have a 13-month-old at home to keep him focused on the future. 

“When I started, it was just (creating artwork of) a lot of the teams that I enjoy,” he said. “My walls were full of my own art.” 

Now, however, his work has a different purpose.

“A lot of this is to try to set up a future for my son so hopefully one day he'll be able to look back and see of all the stuff we've been able to do,” Parkin said. “It inspires me to keep working for him.” 

Jan Murphy is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Belleville Intelligencer. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada