Arnold Manaaki Wilson was born in 1928 in the isolated Bay of Plenty township Ruatoki. He won a scholarship to attend Wesley College in Paerata and went on to study art at the University of Auckland's Elam School of Fine Arts. Graduating in 1955, Arnold was the first Māori to gain a Diploma in Fine Arts, with first class honours in sculpture.
Arnold went to Teachers Training College and there followed a successful and long career in art education, leading a cultural revival of Māori art in schools and in the community. Along with other contemporary artists such as Ralph Hotere, Marilyn Webb and Sandy Adsett, he questioned the orthodoxies and practices of both Māori and Pākehā art traditions. Arnold did not work from a single cultural base. With Māori and Scottish ancestry, he drew upon his bicultural background to produce his work. As a sculptor he experimented with many traditional and non-traditional materials, working with metal, vivid paint and wood in various forms. He was one of the most important mentors of a Modernist Māori art movement within New Zealand.
Arnold exhibited extensively in New Zealand and overseas including Recent New Zealand Sculpture (1968) at the Auckland City Art Gallery, the South Pacific Festival of Arts (1976) in Rotorua, Ten Māori Artists (1978) Manawatu Art Gallery in Palmerston North, Haongia te Taonga (1986) Waikato Art Museum in Hamilton, Kohia Ko Taikaka Anake (1990) National Art Gallery in Wellington and the United States tour of Te Waka Toi: Contemporary Māori Art from New Zealand (1992).
Arnold received a Nga Tohu a Ta Kingi Ihaka/Sir King Ihaka Award from Te Waka Toi in 2001 for new directions in contemporary Maori art. Arnold was a Toi Iho artist who was awarded honorary status of Te Ara Whakarei in recognition of his creative accomplishments in 2002. Toi Iho is the Maori-made cultural trademark of authenticity and quality. He received an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon Award in 2007; an honorary doctorate by AUT University, Auckland, acknowledging his work in education and the arts in 2008 and he was made a Member of the said Order (MNZM ): for services to Māori and the arts, as announced in the 2010 Queens Birthday honours list.
After retirement from the position of Director of the Cross-Cultural Community Involvement Art Programme in the Department of Education, he continued his educational role as kaumātua working with young urban Māori and as advisor to a number of public art programmes. He worked for many years to establish the Awataha urban marae complex in Auckland.
Arnold Manaaki Wilson died on 1 May 2012 at the age of 83.