Connecting to our whānau via a crochet hook

Lissy Cole

September 4, 2020

Earlier in August, I saw a wonderful video piece on Marae about Lissy Cole and her crochet art and it just filled my entire day with joy. The colours, the kaupapa, the mana that Lissy and her husband Rudi had, crafting some amazing works of art for galleries, their friends, their house. Instantly, I wanted to have piece of that joy on Storyo and here we are! To add that joy to your feed, follow Lissy on Insta 🥰

We have heard you speak about your love for crocheting partly being due to the fact that it connects with the ancestors and the past of the Māori world. Could you tell us a bit more about that connection?

As Māori, we are deeply aware of our connection to our tīpuna (ancestors). We are born into this world knowing how we relate to our whānau (family), alive and dead, that we are not separate from them, we are connected through time and space, even after death. I grew up very close to my mother’s whānau. My mother was Māori, Ngāti Hine and Ngāti Kahu. My nana, who I was very close with, died when I was 8 years old. I was absolutely devastated. This was my first experience of death and also of tangihanga.

It was life altering for me and started me on my journey of trying to understand death, dying, life and connection with the spirit world. Since then, I have lost my father at 15 years, my mother at 24 years and one of my sisters at 34 years old. These experiences of death have helped me understand the connection between me and my tīpuna. My dead are very much alive to me, in my heart, mind and spirit.

I have had to develop a new way of relating to my dead. This has taken a very long time and will continue throughout my life and beyond. The magic thing about the crochet hook is, it has given me the gift of connecting deep into my soul’s purpose. The symbolic nature of crochet is connection. You are connecting loops. This act has been the key to unlocking the relationship between our art and our connection to each other, our whānau, our tīpuna, our culture, our whenua, our wairua. This connection has allowed us to draw from an abundant source of creativity and bring into the tangible world, all that is intangible in our wairua.

You talk about inheriting creative genes and inspiration from your dad, your grandmother, aunt and other women from your family. We would love to hear a bit more about you working with your husband Rudi!

Rudi and I have worked creatively together from the start. He would help me if I needed him to build me something for me to then decorate. Or if I needed angel wings cut out, or the time my favourite wooden spoon broke, and he carved me a new one. Or when we brought a retro caravan and we did it up together. But it was when we were preparing for our wedding that we truly felt the power of what we can do together and how great it felt to be creating together. We spent weeks creating all the decorations as we got married in our backyard. We remember very clearly one day when we were both creating. We felt fully alive with each other and I said to Rudi: “Quick, let’s hold hands and say a prayer and send it up to the sky”. So we prayed that we could find a way to create together full time. The rest as they say is history!

We collaborate on all our art pieces. Rudi carves our pieces from polystyrene, I then crochet the base covering and then Rudi completes the whakairo patterning on them. We discuss colour-ways and designs. We work very well together and we love just being at home in our space with the music playing and crocheting and dreaming together. I couldn’t do what I do without Rudi and all the skills he has brought to our collaboration. I call him my Māori McGyver as he can do anything! He is such a positive force for me and a real rock for me. He definitely keeps me grounded and I feel totally safe to express myself which is imperative in the creative process. I feel very blessed that we can create together and make art which people are responding to in a really positive way.  We haven’t had children together but we both feel that our art is a manifestation of our union and combines all our gifts and talents as well as our life experiences. Being Māori and being able to incorporate this into our art has added a deeper level of understanding to our work.

Rudi is inspired by everything around him. He draws from a deep love of being Māori. He loves talking to people and learning new things from them. He is inspired by nature and whānau. His crochet allows him to tell stories in a new way. And being a Māori male, he loves being able to share what is considered by many, an old ladies hobby, with other men.

Rudi and Lissy hugging and looking at each other smiling: photographed by Pati Tyrell
Rudi and Lissy hugging and looking at each other smiling: photographed by Pati Tyrell

What was your experience and learning from the Fat Babe Pool party and body positivity work you have done so far? Is there a moment in the community or elsewhere that stands out for you as a personal surprise or learning?

The fat babe pool party was ABSOLUTELY LIFE CHANGING! This event was nothing short of magical. A wonderful, colourful, vibrant, fun and SAFE space for fat babes to come and swim...IN TOGS! And eat and meet others around a pool was for me, one of the most amazing days ever… The learning for me is, THIS EVENT NEEDS TO HAPPEN ALL THE TIME! Events like these that create beautiful, safe spaces for fat bodies is so needed and important with the amount of fat-phobic and fat hate that exists.

I am such a hard core nana around loving yourself and your body and rocking our what your mama gave you! I want my moko to grow up with a sense of power and strength in living their own authentic lives. I want them to know that they are magnificent beings who stand on the shoulders of incredible tīpuna. I try and instil in them a love for themselves and I want them to know that they are worthy and loved exactly as they are. I want them also to grow up loving their bodies no matter the shape or size. Rudi and I are passionate about creating a platform for them and the rest of our whānau to be able to springboard from in the future with our art practice. We want to encourage our whānau in a creative life, but to mostly dream big and know that when you are living your souls purpose, the universe will support you to do that.

My daughter says she remembers that I wouldn’t let her buy magazines when she was a teenager because I was so anti all the rubbish our girls are seeing in magazines which are designed to make you feel bad about yourself. So my daughter says she has a healthy way of looking and feeling about herself because of all the things I’ve shown her and talked to her about and lived myself. I feel that this is the biggest lesson for parents and grandparents: you have to love yourself and be kind to yourself and talk lovingly to yourself because your children and grandchildren are watching and listening to every word you say and do.

The fat babe pool party has definitely been a major highlight. Just feeling the joy energy at this event was magical.. It left me feeling so incredibly happy. Really the highlights have been connecting with many different women and being able to live in a way that hopefully help others to let their lights shine unapologetically.

Given your creative father you have had access to different forms and expressions of creativity ever since childhood. How come crocheting stood out in the end amongst everything else?

I have and am still obsessed with fabrics and textiles, I love anything that glitters and shines and bright colours honestly make my heart and soul sing an aria! Lol… I was extremely blessed to have a father like mine who would let me loose in his workroom while he was busy and I was able to play with all his fabrics and trims. It was like a playground of colour and texture.

I really feel that crochet found me. I don’t exactly remember what lead me to the shops to buy a hook and yarn, all I remember is I was crocheting and became immediately obsessed with what you could create with a hook and piece of thread. It was amazing to me. Having access to the internet and youtube, I was able to teach myself and then be inspired by sooo many amazing crochet artists around the world. Finding the amazing crochet artist London Kaye was a game changer for me. I connected with her style which is free and colourful and fun but also said something straight away. Her crochet art and way inspired me to put my first yarn bomb in our neighbourhood. It was a poppy for ANZAC day two and half years ago. Rudi and I were up at the fence at 5am putting it up. It felt naughty! I loved it… and from there our projects and dreams grew and grew to where it is now. We have moved away from yarn bombing and into creating sculptural crochet art.

We are telling stories of our tīpuna, we are telling stories unique to us as Māori, we are telling stories of Matariki, of our Gods, of our experiences. These are the stories we want to tell and share with the world. We want people to experience Mātauranga Māori in a new and accessible way.

An art work by Lissy and Rudi, traditional Māori whakairo patterning and crochet with neon colours on top: “Kaitiaki (guardians of our practice) - from left to right: Harikoa (for joy), Taumata (for passion) & Turanga (named after Rudi’s tīpuna)” - image from  Lissy’s Insta
An art work by Lissy and Rudi, traditional Māori whakairo patterning and crochet with neon colours on top: “Kaitiaki (guardians of our practice) - from left to right: Harikoa (for joy), Taumata (for passion) & Turanga (named after Rudi’s tīpuna)” - image from Lissy’s Insta

How do you balance the love and joy of making and sharing your creations with running this as a business?

ARGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHh lol… the business! This is something I have struggled with HARDOUT! Being a creative and being good at business is something that most artists struggle with. Our journey has and will continue to be very organic and faith lead. Both Rudi and I have an enormous faith. We both trust that the next right thing will come along for us and the right people will come at the right time to help us. This faith allows us to trust that we are making the right decisions for us and our business. Plus we are incredibly grateful to have the support of my daughter Jazmin. She is doing our administration for us, she created our website which is amazing and has a very level, sound mind so she is a wise owl for us and can say no to things if I feel like I can’t. I feel very blessed to have my daughter on board, it is something I have wished and dreamed about for years. My big dream is to have a whānau empire!

We have also been blessed to be part of a programme with the North Asia Centre of Asia Pacific Excellence (NACAPE) this year. We have been working with Oyster Workshop, Kim Tuaine and Sarah Rennie and the NACAPE representative, Laura Bunting on becoming ready to enter the Japanese and South Korean markets. This has been challenging and very exciting for us as entering these markets would have felt impossible to us a year ago. Now we are at the stage where we will be entering these markets (digitally for now) and we are excited to see where it will lead.

What are some of your main life values and missions? How have they evolved over time?

Our main values are aroha, manaakitanga, wairuatanga, whānau, and for me living life to the fullest every single day, having faith in yourself and your abilities to rock it out! Living your best life has definitely been a work in action, you don’t just one day live your best life and feel amazing and everything is just amazing. This has been a long and winding journey of deep sorrow, loss, grief, heartache and joy, happiness, fulfilment and peace. Life is a roller coaster, it’s up, down and all around so while it’s great, roll around like a pig in mud and enjoy every second cos as we all know, things change in a heartbeat!

Our big big plan and dream that we have been working on, is to create a full size crochet wharenui. A totally crocheted wharenui in neon pink! We have been very amazingly supported by CNZ to research our kaupapa which has been an amazing time for us to think, plan and dream about this whare and what it will mean, not just to NZers but globally. We believe this whare will eventually tour the world, after it’s toured all over Aotearoa. We are so excited to breath life into this vision and make it a reality. We will collaborate with artists from around the world as well as around Aotearoa on this project. It is going to be epic!

If you had to pick just one item from your own creations that stands out in your memory - what would it be?

This is hard as there have been so so many projects and creations. I think the pool party was definitely one being such a life changing event. Our current exhibition has been incredible in terms of the response we have had, the overwhelming messages of aroha and awhi for our work which is very incredible and humbling for us. We feel very privileged that our work and our kaupapa has resonated with so many people.

Rudi, Lissy and her grandson Christian dancing in front of their very colourful caravan, photo cred: Jane Ussher from NZ Life and Leisure
Rudi, Lissy and her grandson Christian dancing in front of their very colourful caravan, photo cred: Jane Ussher from NZ Life and Leisure

Based on many “success stories” and things we post on our social feeds, it’s easy to assume that people got it all together and know exactly what we are doing. It is good to remember that all of us are really just figuring it all out as we go!  Would you mind sharing some of your personal or professional challenges?

My life has certainly been very blessed and also very turbulent at times. Experiencing the death of my father, mother, sister and beloved aunties and uncles and my nana has given me a perspective on life that not a lot of people I meet have. It has given me an appreciation of this life and the simple things. It has given me a vision for my life and ridiculously huge dreams for my life. Death has taught me about love, and understanding that this life is big! That hospitality/manaakitanga are essential in creating and nurturing strong relationships with people. I have been blessed to have people in my life who love me. I feel their love deep in me and is what is reflected back in the work Rudi and I do. I have chosen to have hope when there has felt like none, when I have been homeless, jobless, relationship-less I have always had faith and hope. These are the things I have clung to on my darkest days. I have worked hard to understand my internal world so that I can make some more sense of my external world. Shining the light on your internal world is not an easy thing to do and requires a lot of courage. My story is life in living colour, it’s black and white and every colour of the rainbow, as it should be. Our lives when we are fully alive to the ups and downs is, as my father would say, an unfolding drama! On the night before my dad died, he declared he understood what the secret to life, it is relationships he said. I fully tautoko this as the love we have for each other and the love for us is the only thing we take with us to the next world.

They have stopped your favourite yarn colour, you mentioned. How much has it broken your heart? Have you moved on? :)

I will and can NEVER move on from this travesty! Lol… I am still gutted and probably always will be gutted they discontinued neon pink!! I mean, they have about 100 shades of beige!!!!!! But no neon pink!!! I need to create my own line of neon yarn!

What would alternative universe Lissy be doing?

Just being as fabulous as I can be!

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