Ankh and you shall receive
A local artist copes with a disability through contemplation of an ancient Egypt symbol and the cosmos
When Christopher Parkins explains the mathematics behind the design of his ankh, a lot of what he says is Egyptian to anyone who never made it past geometry. Many can appreciate the sleek beauty of his take on the ancient symbol, but the numerically minded can appreciate the artistic depiction of what he calls “the language of the universe.” The ankh is an Egyptian hieroglyph meaning eternal life. It’s shaped like a cross with a loop at the top.
“Here’s the ankh,” he says. “It’s kind of technical, but I have all the mathematics spelled out here in word and picture.”Jovial giant
Parkins looks like a cross between Hulk Hogan and Santa Claus. At 6 feet 4 inches, with white hair and a goatee, he’s a jovial giant. In his small, relic-filled apartment in Southeast Reno, he sips good coffee and lights a cigarette. The walls of the place are a testament to nearly six decades of fascination with the extraterrestrial. A large NASA poster of the heavens takes up most of one wall in the living room, but he made just about everything else on the walls, plus the small corner table made of copper, wood and leather. There are three chairs and a couch in his living room, and he gestures to the bar stool and the recliner, and says, “Those two are mine.” He says it jokingly, but it’s a fact.
“A lot of this stuff I’ve got—credentials, a college degree, I’ve even got a sheepskin”—he motions to the wooly hide on the wall—“My parents told me that I could never make it in life without a sheepskin.” He moves back to the living room and sits monk-like on the bar stool.
Parkins grew up in Southern California, and he came to Reno 34 years ago with the intention of moving his mother here and going back to California. He has called Reno home ever since.
“I think about moving, but why?” he muses. “I have everything that I need here.”
For someone who has suffered from schizophrenia and manic depression since he was 20 years old, he seems remarkably … balanced. He says he has been having “some very good days” lately. Because of his illness, Parkins lives on disability. Although his office wall is covered in certificates, an associate’s degree from Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, and a myriad of awards and accolades, he is unable to hold a job.
He creates stunning, mathematically complicated art but is limited to the confines of his home because of the emotional and financial strain caused by “the voices in my head.” The longest that Parkins has been employed is two years.
He tells a story about what it’s like trying to work a 9-5 shift as a schizophrenic. He’ll be at work when a voice tells him that John the Baptist is waiting to talk to him in the park. So, he tells his boss he needs to go to the park to talk to the apostle.
“Four hours later, I’ve been sitting at the park, and John the Baptist never shows up,” he says.
Parkins has an ability to discern the heart of his illness and to explain with truthful humor the difficulties of living with this much-stigmatized disability.
A psychologist he saw years ago gave him advice that he always remembered. “Never use your illness as an excuse.” Instead, he has used his unique thought process to create portable, wearable art depicting an ancient symbol that denotes eternal life. Parkins’ interests in Egyptology and mathematics are the inspirations behind the creation of the ankh.
The graceful miniature sculptures are made of either bronze or silver. According to Parkins, some of his customers like to use them as key chains.
“Use the bronze ones for key chains, and the silver ones for pendants,” he says. The bronze is stronger and does not dent as easily as the more malleable silver. The ankh is available for sale at the Fleischmann Planetarium, at VSA Arts of Nevada, and directly from the artist. Parkins, who designed the ankh, has the pieces produced by Robert Hamilton, who owns Hamilton Custom Cast in Sparks.
“VSA Arts of Nevada had a couple of frames with some of my stuff in it, my ankhs,” says Parkins. “Somebody bought the whole display. I think that it’s someone I’ve known my whole life, someone who’s watching over me.”
Parkins is admittedly quirky, but also warm and kind. He loves life, despite the deep personal turmoil his illness can cause.
“They call me the gentle giant,” he explains, holding a coffee cup in his enormous hands. “I’m not supposed to be able to do any of this stuff because I’m too crazy … life for a schizophrenic is not a nice place to be.”
Parkins feels a deep urgency to help others, and to pass on the ancient information he has acquired to the next generation. He has written a number of articles on astronomy, and he has even written a children’s book that’s also for sale at the Planetarium.
“I’ve got this book here,” he says. “It’s a children’s book on planetary astronomy. This is the sun, and these are all the relative planets. It’s told like a bedtime story. I keep updating it. Right now I have to update the Pluto page.”
He concedes that getting anything done can be a challenge, but despite the debilitating challenges of his illness, he manages to produce unique art, original writings, poetry and painting. The ankh wasn’t built in a day; it was built in a decade. Parkins says that he will get going on a project, and when he experiences a “down” episode, it can last anywhere “from five days to five years.” Nonetheless, he has found a variety of positive avenues in addition to art to help him become a happier, more productive person. An avid reader and intellectual in a matter-of-fact, humorous, slightly self-effacing way, Parkins also has an intense fascination with religion. He says that he has 14 spiritual texts from various religions, but he studies Christianity and practices Buddhism.
The time and thought that went into the ankh’s design are evident, and the accompanying brochure is equally mystifying: “The ankh is flat. Our planet Earth orbits around the sun in a plane of planets. Compared to the other planets, and the way we earthlings look at it, our orbital plane around the sun is flat, too. It gives us a reference place to measure other space phenomena from.”
The brochure consists of three pages of Egyptology, mathematical explanations, and numerical symbolism. “Christopher’s ankh is not designed to make a statement about the Earth,” the brochure reads. Instead, the ankh opens up the timeless questions that humanity has faced since the time of the Egyptian goddess Isis. It asks the questions of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. Parkins doesn’t pretend to have any of the answers, but he’s created an awfully beautiful question mark.
“I’m an artist of life,” he says. He sees the world in an unusual way and strives to fill it with beauty and innovation in spite of adversity. He hopes to produce more planetary pieces and would like to find more commercial outlets for his art. While he plans to continue producing ankhs, he has also considered creating a line of moon themed jewelry.
“I want to call them Moon Units, but that’s Frank Zappa’s daughter, Moon Unit, and she’s copyrighted her name,” he says. “I’d have to talk to her about that.”