Arnold Manaaki Wilson was born in 1928 in the 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, Wilson was the first Māori to gain a Diploma in Fine Arts, with first class honours in sculpture. He went on to Teachers Training College where he embarked on a long and successful 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.
With Māori and Scottish ancestry, Wilson explored his bicultural background in 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.
Wilson received a Ngā Tohu ā Tā Kingi Ihaka | Sir Kingi Ihaka Award from Te Waka Toi in 2001 for new directions in contemporary Maori art. He was also a Toi Iho artist who was awarded honorary status of Te Ara Whakarei in recognition of his creative accomplishments in 2002. He received an Arts Foundation Icon Award in 2007; an honorary doctorate from AUT University, Auckland, acknowledging his work in education and the arts in 2008; and he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Māori and the arts. In his retirement he continued his educational role as kaumātua working with young urban Māori and as advisor to a number of public art programmes.