An honours graduate from New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute in Rotorua, Lyonel trained under master carver John Taiapa. In 1984 he carved the meeting house Matapihi o te Rangi in Tokoroa and Ihenga in Rotorua (1993-96). Since then his work has become more sculptural: it explores the tensions between customary cultural traditions of art located on the marae (gathering place) and contemporary art styles found in the gallery; between modernism and Māori art; between different materials; between substance and space.
Lyonel has completed many commissions, including three major ones for the Electricity Corporation of New Zealand (1992-98) and three waka (canoes): for Te Arawa (1990), Sky City Casino (1996) and the 150th Waitangi Day celebrations. In 2002, Lyonel exhibited a series of domestic-scale sculptures at the John Leech Gallery in Auckland, and in 2004 he created all the artworks associated with the garden design for the New Zealand entry in the Chelsea Flower Show exhibit in London, winning a gold award. He is currently working on another meetinghouse, for Unitec in Auckland, for completion in 2006-07.