It's the early 90s and Annie Hill is teaching a class at Pompallier Catholic College when she tells them to stop and watch fellow student Penny Howard paint.

"It was like a dance," Hill said.

It was one of the many moments Hill, who still lives in Whangārei, knew Howard was going to be "a winner".

Fast forward about 27 years and Howard is now showcasing her latest work in an exhibition at Auckland's Whitespace Contemporary Art called Mana Muse - a series of portraits of women who are leaders in their fields including singer Anika Moa, poet and painter Sia Figiel, Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson, and poet and scholar Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh.

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The 44-year-old who now lives in Auckland said Hill was her "most massive influence" in art.

"I'd written in a book at Maunu Primary that I either wanted to be in the circus or an artist. I was always the creative one at school but when Annie came to art school, I think I was in 6th form, then I really knew, and she was sort of the one who really made me feel like 'you can do this.'"

Whangārei's Annie Hill taught Penny Howard at high school and could tell she was 'a winner'. Photo / File
Whangārei's Annie Hill taught Penny Howard at high school and could tell she was 'a winner'. Photo / File

Hill, who is a "big Penny fan" and is now good friends with her, said it was Howard's mum who initially drew her attention to notice Howard was "deeply sensitive" to art.

"Some people will sit at their desk and scratch away but Penny would stand and when she was really involved in her painting it was like a dance.

"So it was quite beautiful to watch her paint. I remember telling the kids to stop and watch her paint. That was one of the moments where I thought 'you've really got it,'" Hill said.

Howard studied a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Auckland Society of Arts, graduating in 1995.

She said her work today is realistic and tells stories.

There is a red thread that runs through all of her art which is I ngā wā o mua - the Māori world view that we take the past with us into the future for guidance.

Howard, who is of Ngāpuhi descent, said she built it into her art work after learning more about her whakapapa.

"Within all my work that's the ethos, that there's story telling and I'm leaving markers for future generations and I'm trying to encourage other people to do that in whatever they do - making sure you're asking for stories and make sure that you're telling them."

Mana Muse

focuses on strong Māori and Pacific woman.

Howard initially approached Anika Moa about painting her for the New Zealand Portrait Awards.

But when she didn't get in to the awards, she decided to expand and do a series of portraits on women who inspired her.

"I had a meeting with all of the women and I said I wanted to tip the whole idea of the muse on its head, the old traditional idea of males painting women and posing them how they'd want them - it just didn't feel right. I wanted to put that back to them - here I am a female painting a female and I'm saying how do you want to be portrayed?"

Howard photographed all of the women and then printed the images out life size so she could include all of the little details.

"I think they were a little bit taken back to how realistic they were.

"Anika said it was beautiful and brave and she seemed really happy. Selina our poet wrote me a poem which was quite amazing. Sia was so stoked and Marama loved hers."

Mana Muse is at Whitespace Contemporary Art until October 26.