Colleen Urlich's hands have been sculpting, moulding and nurturing Maori art for years and she has now been recognised in the New Year Honours.

The Dargaville artist has been made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Maori art, the highest award presented to a Northlander this round, but she does not credit herself alone.

"No one ever gets by, by themselves. My iwi, my marae, Toi Maori Aotearoa, Nga Kaihanga Uku, particularly the Artists Collective of Te Tai Tokerau and their superb artists and exhibitors -- this is really a recognition of all those people," she said. The 75-year-old's passion for art began in 1956 with her high school art teacher Fred Graham, a notable Maori artist. She discovered art was something she loved to do.

The reason she took to clay art reflected her strong personality.

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"In school it was disputed that Maori knew nothing about clay. Well we never used it for ceramics but we used it for paint and decoration.

"It was so good they used it on the base of the canoes and even with the friction it would last. They'd mix it with oil, usually shark oil. I'm one of those people where if you tell me something I don't believe in I will prove you wrong."

Mrs Urlich has since been involved with various Maori art initiatives. She is a founding member and coordinator for the Maori contemporary clay artists' movement that begun in the 1980s.

The group have mentored a number of Maori artists over the years, many of whom have gone on to host their own international exhibitions.

"It's sheer satisfaction to see them achieve and become noted people in their own right. It's like being a parent, you become so proud over the years."

Mrs Urlich is also the founding curator of Toi Ngapuhi now the largest exhibition of Ngapuhi and Maori arts in New Zealand and the flagship of the Ngapuhi Festival in Kaikohe.

"My iwi have supported me particularly through that festival."

Mrs Urlich, who is also a Justice of the Peace and holds a master of fine arts (hons) from Elam School of Fine Arts and a bachelor of applied arts from Tai Tokerau Polytechnic, established many art departments and was head of art for many years at different schools. She's now been retired for about 10 years.

"When I say retired I mean I'm out of employment but I still work on my art. I don't want to stop, no, so long as my hands hold out I'll be doing my art."