Colleen was born at Te Kopuru, Northern Wairoa, and was educated at Te Kopuru Primary School and Dargaville High School. She later attended Auckland College of Education. She completed her teaching career with a Grade 111 Qualification. As a distance student of Massey University she completed a stage-three research paper on "Rahiri", the Whare Whakairo located on Te Houhanga Marae, Station Road, Dargaville. Roger Neich quotes some of that research in Painted Histories. Colleen’s home marae is Oturei in the Northern Wairoa and she is a trustee of the marae. The marae was estalished by the prophet and Senior Tohunga of Tai Tokerau Aperahama Taonui. Colleen’s research into her tupuna and the coming of his people into Ngati Whatua territory now forms part of Oturei Marae’s wananga resources. Currently a full time artist, Colleen exhibited with four senior Māori clay artists in the exhibition "Nga Toko Rima" at Te Papa Tongarewa from Her work is part of the Te Papa Tongarewa permanent collection, the National Bank collection and Anderson Park Gallery Collection amongst others.
Further academic research resulted in the submission of a thesis, ‘Mareikura’, examining important aspects of mana wahine and issues of equality and complementarity laid down from the time of Creation. The thesis was submitted for a Bachelor of Applied Arts at Northland/Tai Tokerau Polytechnic. Colleen then turned her research skills to a Masters study of ancient Māori knowledge of caly and the links that she perceived led back to the progenitors of Polynesians, the ancient Lapita Peoples Complex and their ceramic culture. The dissertation and accompanying artworks were submitted for a Masters of Fine Arts at Elam School of Fine Arts, Auckland University in 2002 and she graduated with honours.
Colleen delivered a paper, based on her research to the international Conference for the 50th Anniversary of the first Lapita excavation in New Caledonia in 2002. Professor Christophe Sand, editor of the academic publication Pacific Archaeology: Assessments and Prospects, 2004, selected Colleen’s paper for publication.
Colleen developed her interest in clay under the tuition of Hillary Clarke at the Auckland College of Education in the late 1950s. Further encouraged by early Māori potter Alex Musha, she lateer became part of the Ahi-ka-roa Collective of Māori Clay Artists at Matatina Marae, deep in the Waipoua Forest. She counted it a privilege to be taught deeper aspects of Matauranga Māori by the late Rev. Māori Marsden, who guided the collective into using Matauranga Māori to inform their work and to create an art form firmly based philosophically in Māori cultural beliefs. In the mid 1980s the National Māori Clay Association, ‘Kaihanga Uku’, was formed under the leadership of Baye Riddell and Manos Nathan becoming a movement that encouraged young Māori to consider clay as a major medium. Colleen is considered to be a founding member of that organisation. Recognition of the strength of the Māori Clay movement led to ‘Uku, Uku, Uku’ working exhibition which was coordinated by Roma Potiki and the exhibition was part of the International Festival of Arts in Wellington in 1998.
Colleen writes non-fiction articles, research papers, reports and reviews for Toi Māori Aotearoa and Te Waka Toi. She was the former editor of Nga Puna Waihanga Taitokerau Newsletter from 1987 to 1998. Colleen’s articles have been published in New Zealand Potter, Craft New Zealand and Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa Weavers.
Colleen curates exhibitions such as the major undertaing ‘Te Maia’ which was part of the Toi Māori Aotearoa Festival in Hastings in 2005. She has coordinated exhibitions with Manos Nathan for the Bath International Festival in the United Kingdom that subsequently was exhibited in London, Belfast and Edinburgh, and the “Taonga Iti” jewellery and adornment exhibition in Auckland and a similar exhibition in Whangarei. She continues to act as coordinator for ‘Kauwae’, the National Māori Women’s Exhibiting Artists’ Group, in order to encourage emerging Māori women artists into exhibiting works of excellence – this is part of Colleen’s commitment to mana wahine, the promotion of women in the arts and her interest in creativity to enrich peoples’ lives.
Ngapine Te Ao writing in Sister/Yakkananna/Mareikura 2002 quotes Colleen in her assertion that ‘Traditional Māori society was quite special in its recognition of women’s independence and equality. It was not matriarchal or patriarchal; there needed to be complementarity and one could not exist without the other.’ The Kauwae Collective exhibited at Tandanya Aborigianl Institute during the 2002 Adelaide International Festival, with a group of Aborigianl Women artists, hosted previously in Rotorua in 2001. Collee, a Toi Iho registered artist, was an exhibitor in the first joint exhibition ‘Fusion: tradition and discovery’ that featured Māori, North West Coast Indian and Innuit artists at Spirit Wrestler Gallery, in Vancouver in 1999. The success of that first selling show offshore, led to the Spirit Wrestler Gallery promoting the major exhibition ‘Kiwa: Pacific Connections’ in Vancouver in 2003. Overseas success led to ‘Whenua’ at the Tinakori Gallery in Wellington in 2004 which was one of the first Māori collective exhibitions held within a commercial gallery. ‘Whenua’ followed on the heels of the successful ‘E Rere Ke’ exhibition that reatured mid career Māori artists, and organised by Te Atinga Committee of Toi Māori Aotearoa, of which Colleen is a long erm committee member.
Colleen passed away On 10 September 2015 at the age of 76.
- Correspondence and phone conversation with Colleen Urlich: Oct. 1993, 2, 3 and 19 Aug. 1998, and 17 Nov. 2004.