Marilynn Webb felt she was almost "past award age" but the 81-year-old has been crowned the supreme winner at the nation's Māori art awards.

The Dunedin artist and art educator's feat at the Te Waka Toi Awards was announced in Wellington last night.

Webb, who is of Ngā Puhi, English, Welsh and Irish ancestry, gained international renown as a print-maker early in her career.

Brought up in the Bay of Plenty, she is a self-described quiet activist, taking inspiration from land issues in her work.

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Being in her 80s has not diminished her enthusiasm for work.

About a year ago she went to Doubtful Sound in Fiordland with the Department of Conservation to do some work in the area, where she has been a regular visitor since the mid-1990s.

Her recurring theme was "the special places that should be protected, and are not", she said.

"I hate the renaming of places of original names to new ones."

In the mid-1970s, Webb took inspiration from then-Prime Minister Robert Muldoon's National Party Think Big projects, creating prints and pastel works protesting the development of the proposed Aramoana aluminium smelter expansion, and the damming of the Clutha River at Clyde.

She has won national and international awards and is known for her pastel drawings, as well as her prints.

From an early age art was her passion, she said.

Webb in her garden in Mornington. Photo / Peter McIntosh
Webb in her garden in Mornington. Photo / Peter McIntosh

"I was one of those kids who was always drawing and mucking around with stuff and then I went to training college, like a lot of country kids."

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She attended the Dunedin College of Education in 1957, where there was a "wonderful art room" which was open for hours.

"As long as we cleaned up, we were allowed to just go and use the art room."

After attending the college for three years, Webb got into the Tovey Scheme, to reintroduce Māori art into New Zealand schools.

Other artists who took part in the scheme included Ralph Hotere and John Bevan Ford.

She became an art adviser to schools in the Auckland and Northland regions in 1958, and has also worked as an art adviser to schools in Fiji, as well as teaching art herself.

"At that time, art education was very rich in New Zealand schools," she said.

She returned to Dunedin in the 1970s after receiving a Frances Hodgkins Fellowship at the University of Otago.

A prolific artist, Webb was unsure how many pieces she had created during the course of her career, saying it was "hundreds and hundreds".

She has taught as a senior lecturer at the Otago Polytechnic School of Art in Dunedin, and was made an Emeritus principal lecturer in 2004.

In 2010, she received an honorary doctorate of laws from the university.

It was hard to pinpoint a highlight of her career, but what she had enjoyed most about the New Zealand art world was its collegiality, she said.

"That's been terrific."

Other award winners this year include children's illustrator Gavin Bishop, Sir Tipene O'Regan and Sir Pita Sharples.