Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Peter Gossage: A Talent for Communication

Peter Gossage: A Talent for Communication

By Trevor Agnew

Peter Gossage died in August 2016, just before the publication of the handsome collection of his best work, Maui and Other Maori Legends (2016) Puffin NZ.

I interviewed Peter Gossage in 2005 and wrote this article which originally appeared in Magpies magazine in September 2005.

The first time I saw Peter Gossage’s art work, it was a magnificent illustration of Maui on a plastic book-bag issued by the NZ Library Association. Shortly afterwards I discovered his superb retellings of the Maui legends, with their distinctive pictures. While Gossage’s books have never won any awards – an oversight surely – they are among the best-used volumes in school libraries. With three decades of publishing behind him, and a major reprint just completed, it was time to talk to Peter Gossage.
book-bag issued by the NZ Library Association. Shortly afterwards I discovered his superb retellings of the
Peter Gossage’s first book, How Maui found his Mother, was published exactly thirty years ago in 1975. Since then he has built up a library of Maori myths and legends, and the republishing of his Maui sequence makes 2005 a landmark year. 

Peter Gossage is self-effacing.  While happy to praise any artist whose work has influenced him, Gossage is remarkably modest about his own work, to the point of being non-committal.

We began by discussing his schoolboy nickname, Mekon.  The Eagle comic of the 1950s had superb colour illustrations of Dan Dare, and the space technology of the future, created by such artists as Frank Bellamy and Frank Hampson.  Dan’s foe was his huge-brained green invader, the Mighty Mekon.

Peter Gossage laughs, ‘My mates called me Mekon because I had a broad general knowledge, academically, and we all got the Eagle.’ He admits to a great admiration for Frank Hampson’s art work. ‘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.’

Did the dramatic illustrations influence a young boy growing up in Remuera towards a career in art and graphic design? ‘Oh yes, I was always interested in art.’

Born on 22 October 1946, in Auckland, Peter Gossage enjoyed life as part of the post-war generation in Remuera.  Oh, it was good.’ says Gossage. ‘We used to build rafts down in Hobson Bay, and get up to all sorts of mischief. I remember we all had remnants of our fathers’ military stuff and we used to charge around in bits of battle-dress.’ Gossage has always had an interest in things military. ‘I had some model soldiers, and I used to war-game, make a lot of dioramas and models.’ This interest would later resurface in his illustrations for Kathryn Rountree’s New Zealand Warriors series

Reading was also important to young Peter Gossage and he still remembers the books his parents bought for him. ‘I had all the Simon and Schuster Golden Books. I particularly liked those illustrated by Tibor Gergely. The Five Little Fireman, Scuffy the Tug Boat, and so on.  Later I got Legends of Scotland, Ireland and England, Norse Legends, various omnibuses and boys’ books that expanded my general knowledge. A fair bit of science fiction. I’d read anything, I think.  And the Classic Comics were good too.

Asked about the New Zealand books available as he was growing up in the 1950s, Gossage refers to A.W. Reed’s Myths and Legends of Maoriland (1946), revised and still in print as Maori Myths and Legendary Tales, with their black and white pictures. ‘Dennis Turner and Russell Clark were their main illustrators,’ Gossage acknowledges the influence of these two talented artists on his work. In fact he’s reading some of Reed’s retellings at the moment, as he starts out on his latest picture book, Rona in the Moon.

Peter Gossage’s father, Basil, a piano tuner and later general manager for Charles Begg Ltd, inspired a keen interest in amateur drama in his son. Graphic arts were also important in the family.  His mother Rita Finlay and her sister Nola both gained diplomas at Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Art. Nola later married John Holmwood. They ran a display business in Parnell, and painted murals around Auckland.  Both Nola and John Holmwood have paintings in the Auckland Art Gallery.

 Mum worked at ticket-writing and window display at George Courts and at Smith and Caughey, prior to marrying,’ recalls Gossage. ‘I remember her always encouraging me with drawing.’ He adds proudly, ‘One of my four daughters, Star went to Dunedin and got her art diploma. She’s doing very well at painting and the like. $15,000 a painting! She’s making quite a name for herself.’

Education at Victoria Avenue Primary School was followed by Remuera Intermediate and Auckland Boys’ Grammar. Gossage enjoyed his high school days, and credits a teacher with aiding his later career as a writer. ‘I had a good English and Drama teacher there, Terry McNamara, who’s now the Herald art critic.’

When he left Auckland Grammar in 1962, Gossage had to choose between going to Elam or taking a job as an office boy at an advertising agency. ‘My mother said, “If you go for that, I’ll lend you the car.” I shot off for the job. I was sixteen.’

 After the usual spell of delivering mail and messages, Gossage was taken into the firm’s art studio as a junior. At the same time, he was attending a Graphics course at the Auckland Institute of Technology two days a week, and taking  life-figure-drawing classes at night. ‘All that was handy; layout and lettering, and so on. After a couple of years, I went to the Auckland Star and worked as a display artist there.  I did everything from brochures to advertisements: illustrations, typesetting, a variety of things. I’ve always worked in some sort of graphic art.’

At 19, Gossage went to Canada to learn silk-screening. On his return, he joined AKTV2, the northern segment of New Zealand’s infant television broadcasting service. ‘I worked there for ten years as a scenic artist, then a graphic designer. I was a graphic supervisor in the end,’ he says. ‘I produced titles, credits, models and props, a fair range of things. A lot of it was for dramas; there was quite a lot of New Zealand drama being made at the time.

Some of his graphic work was to have far-reaching repercussions. ‘We used to do television programme summary captions, a graphic on a bit of cardboard, twelve inches by nine inches, to show what programmes were on that night. I’d try to have a good range of styles and illustrations. We used a lot of Maori graphics.

 Gossage’s Maori images caught the eye of publisher Charles Strachan, who contacted Gossage and suggested a picture book. The result was How Maui Found His Mother, published by Lansdowne in 1975. Five more Maui titles were published by 1985.

When retelling Maori myths and folk-tales, such as Maui or Hatupatu, writers are always faced with problems of alternative versions, and questions of emphasis and interpretation. Gossage takes this point seriously, exploring many accounts, ‘Sometimes I might read two or three versions of a legend, and try to find a common denominator.’

Maui made his magic hook from his grandparent’s jawbone; some accounts say it was his grandmother, others his grandfather. Gossage drew the creepiest illustrations I have ever seen of the underworld, with roots growing through a skull. There Gossage decided to place Maui’s grandfather. Why? ‘It just suited me,’ says Gossage, ‘I think the best version I had read had the grandfather providing Maui with his jawbone.’

Peter Gossage found his television experience, preparing story-boards to show a visual sequence, was a very good foundation for his picture books.  That’s how I always present them to the publisher,’ says Gossage. ‘I do a story-board on a small scale, showing the whole book.’  He admits that he probably doesn’t need to go to all the lengths he does. ‘But when they approve the storyboards - which they seem to be doing quite regularly now- then it’s just a matter of my blowing the little drawings up. 

Publishing has strict page requirements and to Gossage this limitation can be daunting. ‘I find that’s the most difficult part of the whole exercise – the 32 page format – expanding or contracting the story to fit precisely. There’s got to be that exact number of pages.’

In 1975, when Gossage began How Maui Found His Mother, he was already planning a series of books about Maui’s adventures. ‘It took about ten years to get the whole six out,’ he says, adding, ‘That big book of Reed’s [Maori Myths and Legendary Tales], that’s sort of my Bible. I used that a lot.’

Gossage is also impressed with the skill shown by the staff at Reeds in bringing the Maui books back into print. ‘They’ve done a good job; it’s amazing what they can do with computers.’ He prefers not to use computers himself. ‘I use gouache [opaque water-colour] for my illustrations, it’s like a water-based poster paint; gouache means body colour.

If you examine some of his illustrations, you can just see the brush-marks. Every figure is carefully outlined in black. ‘I call it the stained-glass technique,’ says Gossage. ‘For the first four of those Maui books, I used to do everything with a brush. 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.’ For those who wonder what his pictures would look like without the outlining, see page 30 of Pui-huia and Ponga (2004). The taiaha (long club) of the warrior in the back row was missed.

Gossage’s art has always had a link with hotels, ‘I’ve painted quite a few murals in pubs.’ He has always enjoyed claiming that he wrote the Maui books in bars during his lunch hours.  With the later books, I’d go to the pub at Newmarket and work in my lunchtime.’ Other patrons would take an interest and offer suggestions. ‘No one ever spilled beer on my artwork. I had a couple of close calls though.’ Nevertheless the quality of the artwork in his books, as well as some of his other comments, makes it clear that he does painstaking work over a long period of a time. There is nothing slapdash about Gossage’s illustrations.

Asked about influences, Gossage says, ‘I was always struck by Lacaze’s work. [Julien Lacaze was a French poster artist, famous for his dramatic use of shapes.] He was the first influence on my work, I think.

 The texts of the Maui books are interesting. The words are simple but not over-simplified. In my work as a high school teacher and teacher-librarian, I found that the Maui books were enjoyed by teenagers. They never see them as childish, and adults enjoy these books too. I asked Gossage how he achieved this wide appeal.  I dunno. Simplicity is the essence of good design. English and Art were my two best subjects at Grammar, and I was always good at writing.’

It requires a lot of hard work to create a text that keeps some of the poetry and magic alive, without becoming too hard for younger readers. Gossage acknowledges that the Maui titles weren’t just something knocked together in the pub over lunch.  A writer can write a children's book in a week. It can take artist months to do the illustrations.’

Peter Gossage meanwhile left television and went to the Auckland War Memorial Museum, as a display artist. ‘Ultimately that was the most enjoyable job of them all,’ he recalls. ‘It was like going to a university: you’d learn something new every day.’

 I had hopes of Gossage confirming my belief that being a museum display artist must be a parallel to producing the pages of a picture book – conveying information, illustrating processes, illuminating ideas, and making people aware of things they don’t know. Typically Gossage replies, ‘A lot of my time was taken up in changing light bulbs. Light bulbs all over the place would keep going out.’

 Although he didn’t talk about his display work, Gossage was delighted when I suggested that museum display artists, like Richard Wolfe [who with his wife Pamela produces such titles as Midnight in the Museum and Mouse Hotel], create children’s books as an extension of their normal work of communicating. 

Richard Wolfe was the Curator of Display when I was there. We worked together for several years’, he chuckles. ‘We had a great rapport.’

 The museum also played another important part in his work. ‘Working in the Museum gave us a good grounding in Maoritanga.’ The Maori content and meaning in his books is extremely important for Gossage, and his books sometimes take readers to unexpected places.

 ‘How Maui Defied the Goddess of Death’(1985) is a book where Gossage really took risks; he is trying to educate his readers, and make them think about things like life after death. His account doesn’t stop when Maui is killed and leaves this world. Instead Gossage shows Maui encountering the heavens and underworlds of Maori spiritual belief, with some very dramatic and imaginative illustrations.

It is the Museum that Gossage credits for his inspiration. ‘Well, I was working in the Museum at the time and 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 Maori idea of the cosmos, the heavens and the underworld. And I’d never heard of this supreme being, Rehua. She’s the Goddess of Kindness and Healing. They never told us about her at school.’

Mermeri Penfold (who translated the English text into Maori pointed out to Gossage that he had written “God of Kindness” and told him, “Oh no, she’s a Goddess.”

Gossage adds, ‘I put that little author’s note at the back of How Maui Defied the Goddess of Death just to cover myself. I said that the traditional Maui saga ends when Maui is killed by the goddess of death. What happens next in the book is set in “the Maori concept of the cosmos, heavens and underworlds” Just to cover myself.’

Peter Gossage is proud that he has never met any criticism from Maori people about his work.  I think the only occasion was when, at AKTV2, we set out to make an animated film about how Maui slowed the sun. I approached Selwyn Muru and I said, “Can you give us any advice?”

He said, “Why don’t you Pakeha leave our culture alone?”

But that was the only occasion.’

In their original versions, the last four of the Maui books had dual English and Maori texts. Why was Mirimiri Penfold’s Maori language version dropped from the 2005 editions? ‘We thought about that in this reprint. Really, it’s a publisher’s decision,’ says Gossage. He mentions his Maori Genesis story, In the Beginning (2001) published by Scholastic. ‘Scholastic printed an English version and a separate Maori version. Apparently this is what kohanga reo and schools prefer. I would have thought that having the texts side by side would be easier to translate.’  Meanwhile the question of separate Maori language editions of the Maui saga remains open.

Peter’s wife Josephine, whom he married in 1971, is Maori and was the model for many of his illustrations.  The women in the books are usually based on my wife, Josephine,’ says Gossage, adding, ‘My brother-in-law, Laly, was the model for Maui.’ The four Gossage children, Tahu, Ra, Star and Marama have also appeared, most notably in his modern environmental allegory Tahu, Ra and the Taniwha (1992).

They’re all adults now,’ says Gossage, admitting that he himself is the grumpy artist on page 19 who tells the children, ‘And keep out of my paints. They cost a fortune.’

Since completing the Maui saga twenty years ago, Gossage has mainly produced retellings of Maori myths, such as Hatupatu, Hinemoa and Tutanekei, and Pania of the Reef, keeping the same hard-line, stylised illustrations as the Maui books. This gives them a unity with his sadly under-rated introductory history book, New Zealand: a History in Pictures (1997)

 By contrast his illustration style for Kathryn Rountree’s New Zealand Warriors series (1986-8), with such titles as Ruapekapeka, Moremonui and Parihaka, is much freer, capturing the movement and action of the campaigns. 

Gossage agrees that this was a deliberate decision on his part, again referring to Russell Clark’s pen-and-ink work as a source of inspiration.  It’s pretty demanding, doing this stuff… You try to use a line that suits the book.’

In 1985, Gossage published The Black Knight, a medieval tale about tolerance with a twist. He had hoped to produce a series. What happened? ‘The Black Knight got published,’ says Gossage, ‘but I couldn’t find anybody to follow it up. I had three stories written’. He adds wryly, ‘That’s why I do Maori legends – because they’re the ones that publishers want, and they’re the ones that sell.’

I’ve had a few rejections over the years. You might notice, in the last Maui book, the space invaders pictures.’ On page13 of How Maui defied the Goddess of Death (1985), Maui encounters a wave of electronic images, from a space invaders game, as he passes into the Underworld.  

Gossage’s next project was developing the space invaders theme into a book, The Boy Who Beat the Space Invaders. The contract was signed and the work done but Lansdowne changed directors, and ‘the numbers didn’t add up’ so the project was cancelled.  Gossage, however, retains the pictures and the copyright. ‘It’s about a boy playing an electronic game. As he plays, what he can see on the screen is tracking across the bottom of each page. Meanwhile the game is affecting his ancestors in the past and his descendants in the future.’

Will we see The Boy Who Beat the Space Invaders some day? Gossage is as non-committal as ever.

Reeds have shown a bit of interest in it.

About his earnings, Gossage is philosophical. He has to be. ‘They print about 3000 copies a time of these books, and I think you get about 14% of the profits as royalties,’ he says. ‘If I got paid by the hour, I’d be rich.’ The disparity between the amount of work involved in telling the stories and illustrating them clearly irks him. ‘They split it 50:50 and I think that’s totally unfair.’

At the same time, he knows of an advantage that artists hold. ‘But it’s a two-edged sword. You do retain copyright of the art-work, and the art-work itself.  Often at exhibitions I’ve sold the original art-work for more than I get for the book.’ He laughs and adds, ‘The work is rewarding. Ah yes.’

 He waves the cover of a recent book, the love-story of Puhi-Huia and Ponga (2004).

 That couple on the cover there - the models - they’re a couple of patients at the hospital. I took photos of them, blew the photos up, and xeroxed and traced them off. I think all of that book was done in the hospital, which is the reason it’s not quite up to the standard of the other ones.’ He may be right but Puhi-Huia and Ponga also contains some technically demanding moonlight scenes, among his best work.

Thirty years after he first painted a moko on the face of the moon, Gossage is doing it once more. At his publisher’s suggestion, he’s working on a version of Rona and the Moon

I was reading the version in the big A. W. Reed book,’ Gossage says, laughing. ‘And Rona was carrying on with a neighbour and her husband cut his genitals off and cooked them, and tried to get her to eat them. So I said, “I’m not doing a children’s book on that” So, I’ve toned it down a bit.’

Just out of hospital, Gossage is finding again just how physically demanding painting can be, with its need for concentration and attention to detail. ‘I’ve spent the last few days doing the first double-page spread for this latest book [Rona and the Moon] and it’s been so arduous.

Are there compensations?

I quite enjoy it, yeah.’
Predictably, Gossage rejects praise for his do-it-yourself model volcanoes, supplied at the back of his latest book, Battle of the Mountains (2005). Instead he insists that he was just trying to get the right number of pages. ‘Well, those plans for the models were because of the expansion-contraction thing I mentioned before. I’d done all the story, and I still had three or four pages to fill up.’ Odd then that each model matches the proportions and profile of its particular mountain. Having spent an afternoon watching my seven-year-old grandson stage the battle of the mountains, complete with flying (paper) rocks, I know that the plans were very carefully created. The only person with an unkind word to say against Gossage seems to be himself.

In fact he has every reason to be proud. With his books in every school and library in New Zealand, Gossage’s retellings and illustrations have influenced whole generations of New Zealanders in how they see themselves, their nation, their stories, their past and their heritage. Surely, he must feel proud? Peter Gossage fights his modesty. How does he feel about it? He chooses his words carefully.

 Oh, pretty good.’


A Peter Gossage Booklist:
How Maui Found his Mother (1975)
How Maui Found his Father and the Magic Jawbone (1980)
The Fish of Maui (1981)
How Maui Slowed the Sun (1982)
How Maui Found the Secret of Fire (1984)
How Maui defied the Goddess of Death (1985)
The Black Knight (1985)
Hatupatu and the Bird Woman (1989)
Tahu, Ra and the Taniwha (1992)
New Zealand: A history in pictures (1997)
In the Beginning (2001)
Hinemoa and Tutanekai (2002)
Pania of the Reef (2003)
Puhi-huia and Ponga (2004)
The Battling Mountains (2005)

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