A fibre artist who creates joyously fluorescent works has a serious purpose as she crochets her way towards a mammoth goal. Sacha McNeil talks to
Lissy Robinson-Cole about her famous dad and the meaning behind her art.
There’s nothing subtle about Lissy Robinson-Cole – she’s larger than life, fluorescently adorned and radiating a joy that she’s determined to share.
“The neon colours say – I’m here, I’m loud, I’m proud and I’m not going anywhere.” Lissy’s take on life is more often than not cheerful, her fingers constantly occupied with the hypnotic rhythm of crochet. Although you could be forgiven for thinking Lissy’s outlook on life is frivolous, it’s anything but.
As a fibre artist and designer, her work is unmissable, often life-sized and loaded with the hope of effecting change. It’s also gained a following in the art world, winning a major sculpture award and being widely exhibited. Her pieces weave together her past and present, with the art of crochet having become Lissy’s full-time labour of love.
“I always feel like crochet found me. I’ve always been creative, I’ve always loved textiles and textures. My nanny crocheted, but I was seven when she died and I never got an opportunity to learn from her. I honestly can’t remember what drove me to Spotlight to go and get a hook, but the minute I did, I was obsessed.”
The youngest of eight daughters, she chuckles as she points out ruefully that with all those girls to contend with, it was little wonder her dad passed away early at the age of 57. Colin Cole was a local fashion designer well-known for his stunning gowns and debutante dresses. His daughter’s love for him lives on through her flamboyant creativity.
The medium she’s chosen may be different from her dad’s, but Lissy draws on his artistic flair as well as her family’s intergenerational and cultural connections.
“With the act of crochet you are connecting loops, so the whole symbolism of crochet is connection and that represents my Māori heritage. Aroha and manaaki are everything that we as Māori express and it’s intangible, but crochet has given us a visual language.”
Lissy’s latest project is titled Wharenui Harikoa, a life-sized crochet House of Joy. It’s an ambitious undertaking – so far, it’s been over a year in the making and its taken almost 3000 balls of neon-coloured yarn. Lissy estimates that it will take 5000 balls to finish (you can help by buying a ball of yarn at lissycole.com).
“The mission for Wharenui Harikoa is to heal and transform intergenerational trauma into deeply felt joy, one loop at a time. The simple act of sitting here with others crocheting loops brings community together,” Lissy explains.
Sitting with others has meant sharing the workload, and she’s even managed to rope in her husband. “I had to say to Rudi, I’m really sorry, but you’re going to have to learn how to crochet because I need assistance, and this project is getting bigger and bigger! Bless him, he was happy to learn, so I taught him and he picked it up really quickly. He’s way neater than me, I’m not about perfection at all. Rudi’s from an engineering background, so he gets the ruler out and is very precise!”
Rudi even found his new skill came in handy for his work. “I actually found that being a welder, the crochet helped my welding, because it was a lot of hand-eye coordination,” Rudi says.
“My grandmother used to crochet jerseys and clothing for my cousins, so that connected me straight back to my grandmother,” he says. “There was only one other man that I knew that crocheted and that was one of my uncles. He and my aunty would always crochet together. Men can do it as well. We don’t always have to be tough, we can have a softer approach.”
The sense of considered calm was a skill Rudi was keen to share with other men. He began teaching crochet classes to inmates at Mt Eden Prison. “I taught them how to do a chain and at the
end of two hours they were still going. Everything was quiet, they were just totally involved. I guess it just took them away, briefly, from what they were going through.”
Lissy agrees crochet helps tame the mind. “It’s a soft medium and people are immediately taken to a soft place where they have a memory of a nanny or an aunty who has crocheted something for them as a child. Immediately, barriers come down and they connect to themselves and are able to connect to others. The healing comes with being in relationships with each other.”
Both Lissy and Rudi’s joy for life and crochet is contagious. So much so, after meeting them I dusted off my crochet hook and got busy myself, one loop at a time.
Journalist Sacha McNeil has tried her hand at all kinds of crafts, and runs a website that features Kiwis’ creative passions; see ofsmallmatters.com.
Photography: Sacha McNeill