A tribute to the great illustrator Peter Gossage by whanau member and author Paula Morris.
Peter Gossage died last weekend. He was not quite 70 years old, but he’d been ill for a long time. I last saw him in late May, at my cousin Tilly’s tangi up at Omaha marae; he was frail, wrapped in a blanket, pale as a ghost. Tilly – who he called by her real name, Josephine – was his wife. Their five children were all gathered that day: Marama, Star, Ra, Tahu and Aroha.
Tilly and Peter were much-loved legends in our family, artists who were the kindest and most generous of people. They were eccentric much of the time, and troubled for some of it: they met, famously, in an Auckland Hospital ward, both dealing with mental health issues. The boy from Remuera and the girl from Pakiri had a Ratana wedding in St Mary’s Bay. They wore purple.
Tilly was a notorious telephoner, calling anyone and everyone for chats or rants, for long and sometimes incoherent stories. Often the phone calls came from one hospital or another; sometimes they were from Peter. My father remembers my mother getting a call once from Peter, who’d landed back in hospital on the North Shore and was desperate for cigarettes. My mother, the most vehement of anti-smokers, couldn’t resist the plea. She bought the cigarettes and my father drove her over to the Shore to deliver them to Peter in his ward. Tilly and Peter would give you anything: how could they be refused?
Peter was a different sort of legend to the rest of the country – a true household name in New Zealand, because almost every family read and loved his picture books. He wrote and illustrated more than 20, rendering Māori myth vivid and dynamic. The series began with How Maui Found His Mother, published by Reed in the mid-70s. Penguin Random House NZ keep ten of Peter’s books in print, and are about to publish a hardback edition of eight of them, including the six Maui stories. The first advance copy arrived from the printer just after Peter died.
In the 70s very few local picture books were available; Peter was one of the first to try and to succeed. “His books played a unique and critical role in reflecting stories and legends of Aotearoa for young people,” says Elizabeth Jones of the National Library. She believes they “had an enormous impact in raising awareness and understanding in schools at a time when there was not all that much published. And they were visually wonderful.”
John Huria, senior editor at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, sees the books as a gateway for many children “to the Māori visual interpretation of the stories of Aotearoa.”
Peter’s mythical heroes and heroines, he says, “are to a human scale” and benefit from “the simplicity of good design – they’re not pneumatic DC and Marvel ‘roid ragers. In How Maui Slowed the Sun I look at the bound sun’s incandescent moko, jagged teeth and swirling eyes, and Maui approaching with a jawbone raised high, and I see one of the heroic images that has shaped the visual imagination of generations of New Zealand children.”
Peter’s books have sold tens of thousands of copies. Thirty years after publication, they’re still popular sellers, and in 2013, Peter was awarded the Storylines Gaelyn Gordon Award (a prize for a “much-loved book”) for How Maui Slowed the Sun, first published in 1983. The Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie is “constantly reordering them. We also send them overseas quite often, probably mainly to Kiwis living in Australia who want their children to know something about their heritage.” The Dorothy Butler Bookshop in Auckland is “amazed at how many of Peter’s books we sell. They sell to everyone – schools, local families and tourists.”
Books for everyone, by someone who wasn’t like anybody else.
When I was a child, Peter worked in television as a graphic and scenic artist. I remember visiting the Northcote house, in awe of its creative chaos. He demonstrated a cardboard model of a stage set: I think it was for the TV2 show Happen Inn. The children were allowed to draw on the wallpaper; the adults did too. In later years, the garage was devoted to a vast table battlefield, all the soldiers – on elaborate manoeuvres – created and painted by Peter.
In the early 80s he was a display artist at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Richard Wolfe worked with him there. “Peter was an extremely convivial character,” he says, “with an endless supply of humorous anecdotes and repartee. By way of introduction he would announce: ‘The name’s Gossage, rhymes with sausage.'”
Peter worked on travelling displays for the Museum’s education section, showcasing, Wolfe says, his “characteristic graphic style, which became a hallmark of his popular series of children’s books. His technical skill and ingenuity were also apparent in the large scale model of a Māori settlement produced for the Museum’s redeveloped Māori galleries in the early 1980s.” It’s still on display today.
Meanwhile, he was working on his own books. “I used to do them in the pub,” he told the Christchurch City Libraries in a 2002 interview. “People would often come up, show an interest and offer ideas. No one ever spilled beer on my artwork.”
Wolfe remembers that Peter’s “multi-tasking abilities were on show during morning and afternoon tea breaks in the Museum staffroom, which he put to good use by working on his children’s books. He was somehow able to juggle his drawing pad, artist’s materials, cup of tea and cigarette (those were the days), while simultaneously engaging in conversation and, with an unerringly steady hand, developing yet another of his distinctive illustrations.”
My favourite of his books is How Maui Defied the Goddess of Death, published in 1985 with the side-by-side text in te reo by the late Merimeri Penfold. In brilliant colour Peter reveals the Māori cosmos of ten underworlds and the ten heavens; Maui spins through spirals, morphs into Space Invaders and shatters into “uncountable points of light”. The gods are nine planets, circling him and then putting him together again.
When Peter was working on that book, the drawings were stuck to the mezzanine wall in their new house nestled in the Pakiri dunes. Peter not only showed us the drawings; he showed us the landing pad he’d built for alien space craft outside. The sandy-haired boy who organised medieval battles at school never lost his ability to play, to immerse himself in imaginative worlds. He credited his parents, Rita and Basil, for giving him the “love, privilege and education” to be able to write his books.
One summer, when I was about eight, we drove a rented caravan to Pakiri and eventually – after my father jack-knifed it on Pakiri hill – set up camp in the scruffy paddock next to Auntie Roto’s house. Other cousins were scattered in tents near the pine trees. My brother got impromptu karate lessons from Peter (“it’s all about the stance”). Peter drew an expert moustache on my brother’s Big Jim action figure; neither of us think this was my brother’s idea.
That summer Peter assembled a raft out of things lying about the place: it was swarmed by all the kids. We spent long hours exploring the warm brown Pakiri river, navigating obstacles and trying not to sink. This week, after Peter died, I asked my brother if he remembered whether Peter was always with us when we were out on the raft.
“Yes,” he said. “Peter was the adult.”
In those days, Peter felt like one of us, an intrepid fellow adventurer. He was Peter Pan. He had his own space to escape to, the Northcote house, where he could draw and make art, as long as he was able. He was charming and droll; he was determined. He was humble. He was an original.
In the 2002 interview, Peter was asked what he would like to be, if he weren’t a writer. He said: “A demi-god. A happy husband.” This is how I like to think of him now, he and Tilly dressed in purple in the next world, Peter spinning – like Maui – into uncountable points of light.
Maui and other Maori Legends by Peter Gossage (Penguin Random House, $40) is released on October 3.
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