Celebrity News

Dame Denise L'Estrange-Corbet: 'The hero who's changed my life forever'

Taking on a very special worker opened up the designer’s world

By Wendyl Nissen
Thirteen years ago, an unlikely friendship was started between WORLD fashion designer Dame Denise L'Estrange-Corbet and Jo Lynskey, an award-winning artist.
The pair met when Denise was judging the IHC Art Awards and Jo had won the People's Choice Award for her amazing sculpture of a ginger cat.
"Jo's first words to me were, 'Hi, you're famous, can I work for you?'" laughs Denise.
"I said, 'What's your name?' and she said, 'I'm Joanna.' I said, 'What do you like doing, Joanna?' and she said, 'Vacuuming!'"
While Denise, 62, shares this anecdote Jo, 50, who was born with a learning disability, is laughing her head off, delighted at this history between the two friends. She says that a year later at the next IHC Art Awards, she went up to Denise again.
"I asked her if she'd found me a job yet," recalls Jo.
That prompted Denise to talk to her staff at WORLD because if Jo came to work there, she would need someone to look after her. They decided to offer Jo a job two days a week.
"I was quite shy when I started," admits Jo. "I'd only ever worked with people who had disabilities before."
It was a learning curve for her, but also for the staff at WORLD, who had never worked with someone with a disability.
"I used to work at a sheltered workshop," says Jo. "But it was boring."
Denise says Jo was so frustrated with her work there that she walked out. "She walked down the motorway, found a police station and said, 'I've left my job. Can you take me home?'" tells Denise.
"I did," says Jo. "My mother nearly had a heart attack because they took me all the way home to Remuera and I turned up in a police car."
Jo then worked in a supermarket for a while before getting her job at WORLD.
"What I really noticed," says Denise, "is that when Jo arrived and would say she couldn't find something or couldn't do something, everyone in the workroom jumped up to help her. It really changed our team and everyone who works with us. They all know Jo at WORLD."
"I tell everyone that I love bananas," says Jo. "And so, people are always bringing me bunches of them as a present."
Jo is kept busy putting labels on garments, she's always keen to do some vacuuming and she loves a good chat.
"Sometimes I have to move her on because she'll be chatting away with someone in the workroom about whether one of their children is feeling better or how is their cat? We love that about Jo, but it can be a bit distracting!" she laughs.
Jo says she loves working at WORLD on Mondays and Fridays because "it keeps me busy, keeps me on my toes and keeps me out of mischief".
'I was quite shy when I started. I'd only ever worked with people who had disabilities'
She gets herself into work in the centre of Auckland by bus from West Auckland, where she lives in a supported living home with flatmates. They do their own cooking and cleaning.
"I've been around for dinner," says Denise. "Jo cooked a Mexican vegetarian dish with beans and it was delicious. She's very self-sufficient."
"I am," agrees Jo. "I get myself from A to B, I know my way around town."
The pair recently took a trip to Hamilton to see an art exhibition and made a day of it, stopping for lunch.
Jo also loves to do Lotto and place bets, often winning, she says. "I'm very lucky. I have the luck of the Irish!"
Denise shares that during Covid, Jo wasn't able to come into work because she was at a high risk of catching the virus, but she soon heard from Jo asking if she could come back. "She said she needed to work again because she had to earn money to do her bets!"
Jo is also a very good artist, who has entered the IHC Art Awards most years. "It is something I've always done," says Jo. "I was brought up in quite a creative environment."
Jo likes painting cats best because she used to have a cat called Ginger.
"It was Ginger who brought us together," adds Denise. "The sculpture of Ginger came second in the awards."
'For me, it's about inclusion and making them feel wanted and appreciated'
In 2019, Denise launched a range of WORLD limited-edition canvas bags through the new WORLD Legacy Charity Project, featuring the artworks of people who have intellectual disabilities, including Jo, and the profits went to the artists and the IHC Art Awards.
"We launched the bags at WORLD's 30th anniversary at the Auckland Art Gallery and Jo went around making people buy her bag," says Denise.
"Yes, I did and I signed them all as well," adds Jo.
"She would go around with a Sharpie pen and sign them all," says Denise. "We sold out of those bags really quickly."
Denise's work with IHC began in 2009 and then in 2016 she became the IHC Art Awards Ambassador. In 2018, she called on public and private organisations to consider art projects and collaborations with artists working outside the mainstream. She said there was a need for recognition of these artists within the art fraternity too.
Her role saw Denise travelling the country to visit and encourage artists with intellectual disablities to enter the awards. She explains, "We go right from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island and I visit all the art centres, talk to the artists and see the art they are doing and encourage them.
"I went to see a group who were working at the Papermill in Whangārei. They've all got disabilities but they make paper, and sell it for wedding invites and things like that. And the best thing is the paper has seeds in it, so when you've read the note you can plant it and grow something."
Denise says her main push is awareness.
"Just not to be frightened about getting involved, because not only is it good for them, it's good for you, because you learn so much from someone like Jo, who is full of knowledge, reads the paper every day and brings to work all these stories," enthuses Denise. "She has a hilarious sense of humour."
"I do," agrees Jo. "I'm very funny."
Denise says when IHC first asked her to judge the Art Awards, she had no idea the impact it would have on her personally.
"I'd never had anything to do with that area," she says. "But then they asked me back every year, and I became their first and only Art Ambassador, and then it progressed to having Jo come to work with me and I just love it so much."
"She does," says Jo.
Jo often reiterates things Denise is saying and at times it seems as if both women often speak as one, the result of a long and close friendship.
"I can honestly say that in the 14 years I've been working with the IHC, I've never met one person who was rude or obnoxious," insists Denise. "But I do know a lot of people who are very rude and obnoxious."
"That's right," agrees Jo.
When Covid interrupted the Art Awards, Denise launched an Artists4Artists event and asked established New Zealand artists to donate artworks to raise funds for the awards, giving winners an opportunity to sell their works at Webb's auction house.
It was a huge success, raising $50,994 for the IHC and was a great opportunity for people to buy some art from some of New Zealand's top artists.
Meanwhile, Denise suggested to Jo that she paint a picture of the Queen for her Platinum Jubilee.
"I did," says Jo.
Denise then wrote a letter to the Queen, asking on Jo's behalf if she would accept the painting. "We heard back within three weeks that unfortunately she couldn't accept it because it wasn't on official business, but she said some lovely things about Jo and wished her all the best," says Denise.
"I gave the letter to my Mum, it was so amazing," says Jo.
This year, Denise was made the Patron of IHC New Zealand, which means she will continue to work hard for the charity for years to come.
"I believe you lead by example and, hopefully, when people can see what you are doing, and see that it is working, they too will want to come on board. I am so looking forward to a wider involvement in the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. For me, it is about inclusion and making them feel wanted and appreciated, as they have so much to offer. We just have to keep putting it out there until it sticks."
As Denise talks about her role, she looks over at Jo and says, "Shall I tell Wendyl the rainbow cake story?", which immediately brings a smile to Jo's face.
"She came to work on a Monday and she was a bit grumpy. Jo is never grumpy, so I knew something was up. It turned out she thought we'd forgotten her work anniversary. I always get her a rainbow cake on her anniversary and so she was a bit disappointed," says Denise. "But it was April and she started work in November, so I explained that to her and she said, 'Oh, that's alright then.'"
They both laugh and Jo says she often talks to Denise if she has a problem.
"We work a lot of things out together," adds Denise.
The interview is finishing and it's time to get going, but the day is not over for the two friends. "Shall we go down the road and get an ice cream?" suggests Denise.
"Oooh lovely," says Jo.
  • undefined: Wendyl Nissen

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