Creating taonga, Trevor Agnew

Maui and other Māori Legends: 8 Classic Tales of Aotearoa
Peter Gossage
Puffin $40.00,
ISBN 9780143309291

What a delight! Maui and other Māori Legends contains eight complete picture books in one handsome hardback, complete with embossed cover, glossary and bookmark ribbon. Sadly, its creator did not live to see it published.

Peter Gossage died at Pakiri on 30 July 2016, after a fulfilling career in the graphic arts, working as an advertising illustrator, television graphic designer, and museum display artist. Yet, he will always be remembered for his skilful retelling, in word and picture, of Māori legends. His books can be found in every home, school and library in New Zealand.

When I interviewed him in 2005, Gossage was happy to talk about influences on his painting, but modest about his own artwork. He once claimed that he had created his Maui books “as a hobby during my lunch hours and in the evenings”. He enjoyed yarns of sketching in a Newmarket bar, with interested patrons offering suggestions. Of course, the quality of writing and artwork shows that the Maui books were not just something knocked up in a pub. Gossage was a painstaking artist who put enormous effort into his work.

Growing up in post-war Remuera, he was surrounded by artistic influences. His father was a piano tuner, while his mother, Rita Finlay, and her sister, Nola, both had Elam art diplomas. “Mum worked at ticket-writing and window display,” recalled Gossage. “I remember her always encouraging me with drawing.” Aunt Nola and her husband John Holmwood created murals around Auckland, and both have paintings in the Auckland Art Gallery.

Gossage’s school friends gave him an unusual nickname. “My mates called me Mekon because I had a broad general knowledge … and we all got the Eagle.” Eagle comic was noted for its quality colour illustrations of Dan Dare, the brainy Mekon, and for its future technology, drawn by Frank Bellamy and Frank Hampson. “I had the greatest admiration for Hampson’s art-work,” said Gossage. “He originally drew Great Lives on the back of the comic and eventually took over Dan Dare on the front. He had a great influence on its graphic style.” Hampson was also a strong influence in his career move towards art.

Gossage read widely and, typically, had favourite illustrators, “I had all the … Golden Books. I particularly liked those illustrated by Tibor Gergely …The Five Little Firemen, Scuffy the Tug Boat, and so on. Later I got legends … various omnibuses, boys’ books, etc, that expanded my general knowledge”. His New Zealand reading included A W Reed’s retellings of Māori legends, again with a nod to the artists, Denis Turner and Russell Clark.

Asked about his influences, Gossage named Julien Lacaze (1886-1971), a French poster artist, famous for his dramatic use of shapes and shadows: “I was always struck by Lacaze’s work. He was the first influence on my work, I think.”

At 16, Gossage left Auckland Grammar to work in an advertising agency, studying graphics, layout, lettering and life-figure drawing at the Auckland Technical Institute by night. Later, he became a scenic artist and graphic designer at Auckland television channel, AKTV2’s studios: “I produced titles, credits, models and props, a fair range of things.”

His move into publishing was an indirect result of his television work, creating images for programme notices: “on a bit of cardboard, twelve inches by nine inches … I’d try to use a good range of styles and illustrations … we used a lot of Māori graphics.”

One graphic caught the eye of publisher Charles Strachan. The direct result was the publication of How Maui Found His Mother (1975). Over the next decade, five more Maui books were produced.

Gossage’s Maui saga benefited from his next post, as a display artist at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, which he called “the most enjoyable job of them all”. Museum display work proved very similar to producing the pages of a picture book – conveying information, illuminating ideas and making people aware of things they didn’t know.

The Maui retellings describe: Maui’s discovery of his mother, the goddess Taranga; his fateful meeting with his father in the underworld; his acquisition of the magic jawbone; the capture of the great fish; the combat with the sun; and his final doomed effort to defeat the goddess of death. The collection also includes two other Māori legends, Pania of the Reef and Battle of the Mountains, both tales of thwarted love. Gossage’s bold illustrations give each mountain a distinctive colour, face and moko pattern, while the sweeping double-page panoramic maps are superb.

Gossage used a striking and distinctive graphic style, right from the start. The first pages hit the reader in the face with dramatic shapes: the paired red circles of mother and baby, the sinuous seaweed and the geometric pa site. Here we first meet the stylised patterns (moko on wind, sun and moon), the symbolic shapes (Maui and the topknot), traditional Māori patterns (Maui’s umbilical cord) and the tightly limited range of colours. Sometimes, several events occur in one picture, such as Maui’s transformation into a wood pigeon. Every detail counts, from eyeball to ear pendant.

Gossage preferred to work by hand using gouache. Looking carefully, you can just see the brush-marks. Each figure is neatly delineated in black:

I call it the stained-glass technique. For the first four of those Maui books … I’d use a fine brush to do all the black outlining. It used to take bloody hours, you know. Now I use a fine black felt-pen but it’s still time-consuming.

The final Maui story, How Maui Defied the Goddess of Death, is where Gossage really took risks; his aim was to make his readers think about spiritual matters, so the tale doesn’t end with Maui’s death, but follows his spirit into the heavens and underworlds of Māori spiritual belief, with dramatic and imaginative illustrations.

“Working in the Museum gave us a good grounding in Māoritanga,” said Gossage:

I had a key to the Reserved Book Room, where there was all sorts of stuff recorded from tohunga over a century or so ago. There I found these charts of the Māori idea of the cosmos, the heavens and the underworld.

Although the illustrations of the Maui books are striking and often exciting, it is the gracefully pared-back text that is particularly satisfying. The words used are simple, but not over-simplified. As a result, these books are enjoyed by young children and teenagers, as well as adults. When I asked Gossage how he achieved this wide appeal, he didn’t know: “Simplicity is the essence of good design. English and Art were my two best subjects, and I was always good at writing.”

Gossage worked hard to use language that kept some of the saga’s original poetry and magic alive: “The line sped through the depths with the speed of a taiaha … He was not landing a fish, but fishing a land.”

Maui and other Māori Legends is a taonga for future generations to treasure.

Trevor Agnew is a Christchurch researcher and reviewer. He was awarded the Storylines Betty Gilderdale Award in 2013 for outstanding service to children’s literature and literacy.

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