Dargaville clay artist Colleen Urlich, known as Aunty to the young artists she worked with, has died leaving behind a powerful and lasting legacy.

Mrs Urlich passed away on Thursday aged 76. She spent her life nurturing Maori art through various initiatives - she was a founding member and coordinator for the Maori contemporary clay artists' movement that began in the 1980s and was 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.

Last December, Mrs Urlich's contributions were recognised in the New Year's Honours when she was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Maori art, the highest award presented to a Northlander in that round.

Close friend and fellow artist Allen Wihongi said Mrs Urlich's death was "very sad", especially as it was only last week that her close friend and contemporary Manos Nathan, another renowned Northland Maori artist, died.


"It's very sad and has left such a huge hole but in saying it the way those two worked, their nature, the way they operated - they grouped a movement and have left a legacy that will not go away."

Mr Wihongi said Mrs Urlich was well respected not only in Northland but nationally and internationally. In January, Mrs Urlich and seven other Te Tai Tokerau artists went to Queensland to work for 12 days with a group of Aboriginal artists.

She described it at the time as a "sharing of technique" and "wonderful collaborative art".

Mr Wihongi said Mrs Urlich was "very encouraging" when working with young artists.

"They called her Aunty and referred to her as the matriarch. She was highly respected and very, very caring."

When Mrs Urlich was interviewed by the Advocate about her New Year's Honour, she said that despite being retired she still worked on her art.

"I don't want to stop, no, so long as my hands hold out I'll be doing my art."

Mrs Urlich will lie at Oturei Marae, Dargaville, from 1pm today.

Her funeral service will be held on Monday at 10am.