Artist and human rights campaigner Ben Quilty one of four New South Wales Australian of the Year finalists

The four New South Wales finalists for Australian of the Year have been announced.

Social change innovator Elizabeth Broderick, humanitarian Patricia Garcia, heart surgeon Ian Nicholson, and artist and human rights campaigner Ben Quilty have been honoured with nominations.

"I'm not quite sure what to say about it all; I feel slightly awkward about it," Quilty told Robbie Buck on 702 ABC Sydney.

"My mum was a lifeline councillor for 13 years, and my brother worked in a soup kitchen for three years.

"I've known a lot of people like my mother and my brother who have inspired me to help pull the compassion out of society."

The artist had a busy year presenting his first exhibition in Sydney in six years.

"That was exciting; it is my hometown and I feel a lot of support from old friends and family who come along," Quilty said of the exhibition.

Quilty also spent much time championing the plight of the two Australians — Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan — who were convicted in Indonesia of drug trafficking and executed in April 2015.

"It was in the wake of the executions of Myuran and Andrew and people had expectations it [the exhibition] would be more graphic exhibition than it was," he said.

"Big things like that [the executions] take many years to weave their way into my practice.

"There were a few paintings Myuran actually asked me to make, and I did, but they are far too offensive to be out in the general public."

Quilty, who taught Sukumaran to paint while the prisoner was on death row, would like to release the graphic paintings one day.

"Maybe after I am dead, one day they will [come out in the public domain]," he said.

Meet the nominees: Elizabeth Broderick - social change innovator

As sex discrimination commissioner from 2007 to 2015, Ms Broderick was single-minded in her determination to break down the structural and social barriers preventing women from reaching their potential.

A key advocate for Australia's national paid parental leave scheme, Ms Broderick fought for changes to the ASX corporate governance principles to increase the number of women at decision-making level.

She developed the Male Champions of Change strategy, enlisting a 'who's who' of powerful businessmen to tackle sex discrimination in the workplace and her review into the treatment of women in the Australian Defence Force led to large-scale cultural change.

Patricia Garcia - humanitarian

For the past decade, Patricia Garcia has lived and worked in war zones from Afghanistan to Sudan, Bosnia and Burma.

Ms Garcia has managed humanitarian relief and recovery programs in some of the world's longest-running conflicts.

Witnessing firsthand the violence and brutal exploitation of women and girls in armed conflicts, Ms Garcia has broken their silence so that these women's voices can be heard.

Ms Garcia has supported refugees making a new start in Australia and has designed the human rights course for the Masters of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.

Dr Ian Nicholson - heart surgeon

One of Australia's leading cardiothoracic surgeons, Dr Ian Nicholson is a regular volunteer with Open Heart International since his first trip to Fiji in 1994.

Dr Nicholson has travelled throughout the Pacific and Africa to give people in developing countries the lifesaving surgery they deserve, yet cannot afford.

Dr Nicholson has mentored medical teams in developing countries for two decades, passing on his skills and knowledge to help them gain self-sufficiency.

Donating countless hours and immeasurable expertise, Dr Nicholson gives many people, both young and old, a second chance at life.

Ben Quilty - artist

As the official war artist in Afghanistan, Quilty recorded and interpreted the experiences of Australian servicemen and women, revealing the internal struggles and bravery discovered in conflict.

His paintings now hang in the Australian War Memorial, and Quilty won the Archibald Prize for his portrait of the artist Margaret Olley in the year before her death.

Quilty led a campaign which called for Sukumaran and Chan to be spared the death penalty, and mentored Sukumaran for four years, helping him transmute some of the trauma of his death sentence into art.

A mentor to many more young artists, Quilty is also a filmmaker, a reconciliation supporter and a champion of young men and boys determined to find a different voice for masculinity in Australia.

Originally published in ABC News, October 26, 2015