Native Affairs - It’s Puzzling

By Aroha Awarau

Mother-of-six Leonie Olsen is piecing together a unique way to share our stories and whakapapa – through jigsaw puzzles.

“I’m hoping that I’ll be approached by iwi and hapu to put local stories into puzzle form. You could have layers of generations of a puzzle. That would be great,” she says.

The Taranaki artist started making puzzles twenty years ago when she and her husband Jesse were unemployed and had six children at home.

“When you’re broke you get creative. There was hardly any work around. My husband is an artist and he put out some amazing pictures and showed me how to make a jigsaw puzzle. It went from there.”

Her colourful puzzles portray Māori stories and teach children about tikanga Māori. She visited kohanga reo and kura in the Taranaki area with her puzzles and was surprised how people responded to her work.

“We realised there was a niche there that wasn’t being fulfilled in the communities. We put out all these Māori pictures, turned them into puzzles. We took them to the schools and they just sold like hotcakes.”

Puzzle making was the family’s bread and butter for a year, before Leonie’s husband found work in the oil industry.

“That was the end of the puzzles. So we stopped doing them and we had a big rest.”

Leonie has recently returned to her favourite pastime to earn extra money – and she’s loving it.

“I didn’t want to go back in my field of work, I was cleaning. I figured at my age I should be allowed to decided what in life I want to do. I thought I’m going to go back and make jigsaw puzzles.”

She says it’s a joy seeing children playing with her puzzles and learning about their culture.

“It’s interactive, it’s a way of remembering who you are and where you come from.”