• Brian Gunson

Brian could always draw. An image I, as an older sibling, will always have, is of Brian on the floor, crouched over a piece of paper, pencil in hand, making pictures which amazed me. This was during the years of World War II and the years following.

Our father worked in a stationery factory before he went, with the 28th Māori Battalion, to join the war in Italy. He left us with piles of paper off-cuts – enough to see us through to the war’s end. Brian made good use of these. In those early days, being wartime, many of his pictures were of skies filled with fighter planes and flying bullets, or enemy craft breaking up and coming down in pieces. Or there could be ships waging a battle at sea. For a time, he had an interest in comic figures and super heroes.

Brian had no formal training but had an inborn gift and an eye for detail. Whether it was painting, figure drawing, facial expression, design work or illustration, he brought his own originality and precision to his work. An area of great amusement to us was his ability as a cartoonist, which gave scope to his natural wit and humour. He was a hands-on artist who had no liking for computer-generated art.

When he left St. Patrick’s College, he went to work for an advertising agency and later became an in-house designer for Collins/Olympic Stationery, where he worked until he retired.

It was on retirement that he began to take on work for a design collective, Manu Kopere, which sought contracts on behalf of Māori artists. This was convenient because the collective, based at Hongoeka Marae, was almost next door to where he lived. His studio was a room off his garage, quite a magic place, being full of paintings, sketches and memorabilia where there was always work in progress. He was now able to fully embrace Māori design work, characters, stories and histories. There was now a demand for it. Examples of work from this period include posters and pamphlets promoting Māori health and well-being, art work for Maori theatre collectives and logos for groups such as the Waitangi Tribunal.

His iconic stamp designs were done at this time.

Importantly, retirement from employment also gave space for his own artistic creations in paintings such as “Maui Slows the Sun” and “Ka Mate, Ka Ora”.

Other works in this style can be seen in Whiti Te Rā! – the Story of Ngāti Toa Rangatira exhibition in Pātaka’s Daylight Gallery.

His most well known and loved illustrations are the many that he did for Māori publishing House, Huia publishers, who produce Māori stories in te reo and English. Featured in this exhibition are original art works for three books: Ko Maraea me Ngā Toroa, (Penguin Publishers) Kei Hea Taku Pōtae and Whakapū, (Huia Publishers).

Early in 2019, he was approached by the principal of Plimmerton School who asked him to do design work for the refurbishment of the school library. The school wanted something which reflected the Maori history of the area. Where the library now stands had been an important flax gathering place in former times. Though he was unwell at the time it was a project Brian undertook with great enthusiasm.

It was from his hospital bed, with colour charts and diagrams spread about, and his niece, fibre artist Kohai, at his side, that designs were completed.

It was also from his hospital bed, knowing that he would not be around to see the work to fruition, that he expressed his wish that the work be completed by family. He knew that there were artists, within the family, who were capable of the task. With this in mind, he left kowhaiwhai designs, with their meanings, and advice on how these would be executed. The first stage of the project – the entranceway depicting a woven cloak – was opened in March 2020. (See image in the exhibition.)

A significant undertaking in his life as an artist was when he worked alongside his brother-in-law, Waiariki Grace, designing and painting the kowhaiwhai panels for the wharenui, Te Heke-mai-raro, at Hongoeka Marae. These depict the values and principles of the marae. It was a project which took four years to complete. (See images in marae booklet, pp 17-21.)

The whare opened in 1997, from which time, Brian was one of the whanau who welcomed visitors and told the stories of the creation of the wharenui.

With this exhibition we remember an artist of high calibre and integrity, who loved to work for, and in, his own community.

Brian runs at Pātaka Art + Museum from 27 February – 25 March 2022

Opening Hours

  • Monday - Saturday, 10am - 5pm
  • Sunday, 11am - 4.30pm


  • Bottle Creek Gallery
  • Corner of Norrie & Parumoana Streets (17 Parumoana Street)
  • Porirua City Centre, 5022