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(Photography: Ralph Brown, additional design: Tina Tiller)
(Photography: Ralph Brown, additional design: Tina Tiller)

PartnersAugust 24, 2023

Lissy and Rudi Robinson-Cole are shaping their own empire

(Photography: Ralph Brown, additional design: Tina Tiller)
(Photography: Ralph Brown, additional design: Tina Tiller)

For the latest instalment of our Art Work series, Lissy and Rudi Robinson-Cole talk about all the work that goes on behind the scenes of their art. 

Lissy (Ngāti Hineamaru, Ngāti Kahu) and Rudi (Waikato, Ngāti Pāoa, Ngāruahine, Te Arawa) Robinson-Cole have been a multidisciplinary art-making duo since 2014, and have been artists in residence at the Nathan Homestead since 2021. Their work includes 2019’s Joyride, multiple exhibitions around the country, and their most ambitious work yet: Wharenui Harikoa, a large-scale crocheted wharenui.

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

On work-life balance

Rudi Robinson-Cole: Being an artist is not a nine-to-five, Monday to Friday type thing. It’s about the amount of work that we get in or the project that we’re working on. That tells us how much work we’ve got to do. We’re very driven people in our mahi and if we know that we have a deadline then we’ll keep to that deadline. The good thing about working here at the Nathan Homestead is that it’s a 24/7 thing, so we can come in early in the morning, we can come in late at night.

Lissy Robinson-Cole: We’ve just completed the making of our wharenui harikoa. We started that on January 8, 2021, so two and a half years ago and that really was an everyday thing. 

If we weren’t here physically making it, we were talking about it, thinking about it, dreaming about it, trying to find money for it, trying to make money doing other things. It’s full-on every day, every moment of your life. For us there is no separation. 

We’re kaupapa driven – it’s not just about crochet, it’s about this huge kaupapa of transformation and intergenerational healing, so it can be quite heavy. 

That’s the balance that we have to find, in that we don’t have to save the world, we just needed to bring forth into this realm this whare. That’s what the tūpuna have said. “All you need to do is make it, and we’ll take care of the rest.” We’ve reached that point. Now other opportunities are coming along for design work, so it’s busy. Really busy.

Lissy Cole Robinson & Rudi Robinson, Wharenui Harikoa, 2022. Image: Courtesy of the artists and The Dowse Art Museum

RRC: We keep ourselves open. If people were to walk in now and we’re working, we make time for them. We take care of them. That’s all part of it. Our kaupapa is manaaki – that we bring people in. A lot of our work has been through the people that we know and friendships that we’ve made.

LRC: But in terms of the journey to create this whare and to do what we do today, we both have had our nine-to-fives and I left mine to pursue what I knew was my soul’s purpose. That was creativity. I didn’t know how I was going to sustain myself or what that was going to look like but there has always been a burning desire to express myself creatively. 

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

Rudi was also working, also super creative but working with hard things like wood and metals. When we met there was this special energy when we created together and it brought us both so much joy so the first thing we really did was intentionalise this deep and burning desire to create together and sustain ourselves.

We didn’t know how that was going to be. We just kept praying for a way to be made, because we knew in our soul that this was how we wanted to live our lives, not doing nine-to-fives working for people with no vision. We’ve got a strong vision ourselves. 

I’d rather be living under a bridge than work for someone else ever again. I will hustle to live this life. 

On taking opportunities

LRC: We’re really open and I can spot opportunities. I can recognise when the opportunity train pulls in and I’m like “get onboard, we’re onboard”, so making that very strong clear intention and then being open to what this could be and knowing that we’ve been guided by our tūpuna has led us on this journey. 

I’ve always wanted to work with my daughter, I’ve always wanted to create a whānau empire, because why not? We want to work with our whānau, so we were really fortunate that my daughter came on to help with the administration. That will kill an artist in two seconds flat. That will make me want to go to an early grave, the administration. The thought of crocheting a wharenui would send her into an early grave too, though! 

Early on she jumped onboard to start to give us a hand with that, which is what we needed. That is the truth about being an artist and making a life that’s sustainable. 

RRC: You have to surround yourself with your peeps that you know are going to be there for you.

LRC: But you need real expert help too. You need a lawyer, you need marketing, you need business advice. We’re so blessed that in this journey these people have come on to our path to assist us. 

We choose this life 100% but we work for it too.

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

LRC: We just opened our show at the Tim Melville gallery, and he came in here to catch up with us to see how we were getting on with the mahi for the show. We told him all of the things we’ve got on the boil, all the things we’re imagining and envisioning into being and he was like “how do you hold it all? Do you find it exciting or exhausting?” 

I said both. It’s exhilarating but it’s also exhausting. I feel an urgency with life, because I know that at any moment we could transcend right on outta here. So I’m all about just going for it. Our work reflects that in the energy and the colour and the vibes that are coming off our work. There’s an urgency to it. I’m fast and furious in every way. How I drink, how I eat, how I live… fast and the furious. 

RRC: I think it’s about the energy too. With the right opportunity it brings a really awesome energy – you’re not tired, you’re not exhausted but then you can also gauge if it drains your energy then it’s not the right thing. Because you want something to also uplift you.

LRC: You have to go through a process to figure out if it’s the right thing or not. 

RRC: Weed out the thorns.

LRC: The good old opportunity train seems to pull in quite often at the moment. You’ve got to make hay while the sun shines!

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

On staying well

RRC: I’m an active relaxer. I have to potter around outside. I have to go do my lawns, I have to go be in the garden, but there’s some days where I’ll say to Lissy, “I’ve got to sleep” and then I’ll just shuffle off and put myself to bed for a couple of hours.

LRC: Rudi is a busy person! If he’s not mowing the lawns he’s rearranging the shed, if he’s not doing that he’s rearranging in here. I’m a relaxer relaxer. I love nothing more than to be on my couch watching my programmes on Netflix and chilling out. We also have a portable spa pool. Game changer. Everyone should have one.

What’s really good for us is working together, and I think we’re super fortunate in that way rather than when it’s just yourself and you’ve got to really step up or take a rest. The other day I was having a really low-energy day and we had people coming into the whare. I said to Rudi “I’m really tired”, and he took over and did all the talking and all the energy output.

RRC: With working together, when one’s down, we’ll pick the other up, because we’re not always on.

LRC: But also, it’s a total blessing to be doing this full time, so you do just have to force yourself. It’s part of the job and this is the only job I want so you just sometimes have to push through. 

This life is so awesome. I wouldn’t want any other life ever.

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

On what makes the work worth it

RRC: I was here at 6am on Monday finishing off the last of our wheke for the install of our show, and it was just me, here, making, in my pyjamas. It’s being in that beautiful current of creativity. 

LRC: Before the purpose and the wharenui became clear to us as a vision, when I’d just left my nine-to-five I’d be sitting in my sleepout at home making a cushion or whatever and at that stage I’d be going: “What am I doing? Does anyone give a shit that I’m making this cushion?” No. 

What’s the alternative? Go back to my nine-to-five? No. Then shut up and keep going.

RRC: And you’ve got to keep going. 

LRC: But I never ever ask myself that now. I know what I’m doing.

Yesterday we had Miriama Kamo come through and read to 40 kids from Wiri Central Kura inside the whare, her new pukapuka about Matariki. Kids don’t hold back, so once the doors opened and they saw the whare, all you heard was “wow, wow, wow”. She read the pukapuka and then they all stood up to do the haka and waiata tautoko and I was crying.

This is what we made our whare for: for all this energy of aroha to be expressed in this space of freedom, safety, joy, inspiration and colour. I feel like the tūpuna are like: “Good one, moko. You’re doing what you’re meant to be doing and being the conduit of love.”

On what would make it easier

RRC: A high trust model would help!

LRC: A high trust model! It’s hard because we’re all fighting for the same money, so really there should just be enough money. You want funding for your amazing idea? Cool, there it is; the pūtea is there for people to realise their visions.

Without art we’ve got nothing. Nothing. That’s why I don’t get people like the mayor – without art you’ve got nothing! 

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

– As told to Sam Brooks

Keep going!