On the morning of their wedding in 2017, Lissy and Rudi Robinson-Cole stood on the verandah of their gorgeous Ōtāhuhu villa in Auckland, pledging their life together would be filled with love and creativity.
They had crafted lanterns and table decorations for their nuptials, planned menus and cooked food for whānau, arranged flowers, and stencilled the word LOVE in giant letters across a huge wooden fence.
“We were totally in the zone getting ready for the wedding, when Lissy comes up and says, ‘Come on, come on, we have to go and pray, and put out to the universe that we are going to be using our creativity to work together full-time,'” Rudi recalls. “We knew that we worked really well together and it was how we wanted to be living, so we went out on our deck and we put it out there into the universe! It was a very pivotal moment for us.”
Nearly seven years on, the couple has fulfilled that promise in a way that they might not have imagined in even their wildest dreams.
Guided by the spirits of their tūpuna (ancestors), and encouraged by their whānau and friends, they have created one of the most unique and talked-about projects in New Zealand art – a full-sized crocheted and vibrantly coloured Māori meeting house, Wharenui Harikoa, which translates to House of Joy.
Lissy (of Ngāti Hine and Ngāti Kahu descent) and Rudi (Ngaruahine, Te Arawa, Ngāti Paoa and Waikato-Tainui) describe it as a “refracting prism of tūpuna-inspired light that shines across the sky like a rainbow”. It combines their shared love of creating – Lissy is a fashion designer and crochet artist, while Rudi is a carver and welder/fabricator – and has seen them work fully in sync with one another.
“It’s a love story,” says Lissy. “It’s a love story between Rudi and I. It’s a love story for our tūpuna. It’s a love story for our whānau. It’s a love story for our culture. Rudi and I have such definitive roles in what we do. He is a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy, detail-oriented, but don’t give me details! Don’t ask me nuts-and-bolts questions! My role is to dream, to manifest, to hustle and to jump on opportunities.”
Rudi carved the structures of Wharenui Harikoa from polystyrene, which have been covered in neon-hued woollen crocheted creations. While most of the designs are the couple’s own, they have also collaborated with artists from New Zealand and around the world.
The project has linked Lissy and Rudi back to their ancestors, built new bonds with their own whānau and celebrated te ao Māori. Lissy adds that their guiding purpose is to explore the pain and loss we all experience in life, but to take audiences on a healing journey that breaks down barriers, brings people together and spreads joy.
Vibrant colours are a big part of that, chosen because they make Lissy’s heart sing. “I thought to myself, ‘What is it about neon that we love so much?’ It’s because it just brings joy! They’re so bright. They’re unapologetic colours. They’re loud, they’re proud and they’re in your face.” Her love of colour may owe something to her late father, fashion designer Colin Cole. From the 1950s to his untimely death in the ’80s, Lissy recalls their Mt Eden home, where she was raised with her seven sisters, and his Parnell studio being filled with colour, gorgeous fabric and “all the beautiful things in life”.
But Lissy, whose daughter Jazmin now works alongside her and Rudi, also knows darkness. Colin passed away when Lissy was in her teens and then her mother died when she was 24. Ten years later, in 2004, her youngest sister, Annabel, died in a car accident. Lissy remembers being grief-stricken for months after Annabel’s death, then starting to hear her sister’s voice telling her that life is fleeting and if you’re unhappy, you should take steps to make things better.
Rudi grew up in the Kaingaroa Forest, near Rotorua, where his father and brothers were forestry workers. He likes to say he was brought up with a chainsaw in his hands. He tells, “When my grandmother and her friends got together to do things like crochet and macramé, me and the rest of the men would head to the tool shed!”
Like Lissy, he left school early and began working in hospitality, before switching careers and becoming a welder/fabricator. Rudi later tutored welding and fabrication at the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, where he learnt whakairo (carving) from fellow tutors.
He and Lissy met through mutual friends in 2014 after their first marriages ended. While Lissy followed in Annabel’s footsteps and studied public relations, she felt as if something was missing from her life. With Rudi’s encouragement, she took a big leap into fashion design and started her own clothing label but struggled to make it work in a highly competitive industry.
Life changed when Lissy watched a YouTube clip about crocheting and decided to try to make a blanket. But she found it hard to stick with rigid patterns to create neat-looking and evenly-shaped squares. Then she discovered the work of yarn street artists – yarn bombers – who use colourful wool creations rather than spray paint to brighten up urban environments.
“I had been immediately obsessed with crochet, but I was getting really frustrated because I was watching YouTube and thinking, ‘I cannot do this perfectly and everybody on YouTube does this perfectly,’ and that’s when I discovered London Kaye, whose style was so free and just so cool.”
When a friend challenged Lissy and Rudi to put out a yarn bomb in their own neighbourhood in 2018, they created a poppy for a motorway overbridge to commemorate Anzac Day. The response was over-whelming, with people commenting on how much they loved it. Soon their fence was festooned with colourful crochet creations.
“People were loving what we were doing at home and saying, ‘We love coming by and seeing what new thing you’ve put up in the neighbourhood.’ Then I was like, ‘Hey, let’s crochet the car – let’s take this joy on wheels!’ It was an amazing experience to drive around in the car because people were blown away by it, just freaking out about what is really such a simple thing.”
Exhibitions of their work followed, then came the idea for Wharenui Harikoa, which has garnered support from all sectors of the art world. South Island-based Outlaw Yarn created a new collection of super-chunky yarn in the dazzling colours found throughout the whare and immersive media company iSparx devised a downloadable app so Wharenui Harikoa can be explored from afar.
“Rudi and I are open to seeing where this journey takes us, but we do have a global vision for it,” says Lissy. “Working on this has taught us that anything is possible when it’s done in love. Anything is possible when you really connect deeply with your tūpuna and you just allow your life to unfold, rather than trying to fight things or make things happen.”
Wharenui Harikoa will be on public display at Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato until 17 March.