After 22 busy years in Sydney, the celebrated artist and nature lover decided to settle back in Auckland “for sanity’s sake”.
“I left because of the pressure from society in Sydney to attend events, mixed in with the traffic,” says Blake. “I’d been there and done it. I came home to appreciate and rediscover New Zealand as a wise, old adult.”
He fell in love with a house on five acres of land in Trig Road, but decided the only thing that was missing from his new abode was a garden with native bush.
After fencing off about an acre of the section, Blake began building the sanctuary which would become the Whitford Bird Garden.
“This was all a sheep paddock when I bought it,” he smiles. “As I met people here I discovered that I could grow all sorts of exotic plants that I was familiar with overseas. I fenced the original garden for pheasants.”
The site, which Blake has owned for 24 years and has been open to the public for 10, is a place of tranquility where beating hearts and hectic lives slow down a little to take in the surrounds.
Near the entrance to the bird garden, a group of sculpted white herons are perched to welcome visitors as the owner himself was welcomed more than 20 years ago.
“When I flew across from Australia to look at the property, I was welcomed by a beautiful white heron in the Turanga Stream at Whitford Village,” says Blake.
“I’d never seen a kotuku before. I loved the coincidence of seeing that bird so much that I created the sculptures in the garden to celebrate it.”
“I had a pair of golden pheasants to start with,” Blake told Our Homes TODAY. “To be so intimate with the animals and birds is lovely. It’s very rare in New Zealand to get so close to some of these exotic [species].”
Keeping the pecking order intact has led the garden’s owner on crazy chases on more than one occasion.
“One bird is always wanting to be dominant,” he explains. “They can be terrible. They rush up towards me and frighten me. They’ve never tried to do it to the public though. I’m the boss of the garden – that’s why they try to dominate me.”
Blake chuckles at the memory of one particular showdown, involving an upstart Swinhoe pheasant who needed taking down a peg or two.
“I chased him for 20 minutes and he’s sulked for four months. The chasing works – the internet doesn’t tell you that, but it does. He still comes out to meet visitors, but is wary of me when I’m by myself.”
The 67-year-old is passionate about the environment; a stance which has seen him publicly set alight a number of his own artworks to symbolise the destruction wrought on nature by people.
Instead of keeping the wonders of the one-acre wildlife sanctuary to himself, Blake decided to share it and has welcomed 14,000 people through the doors in 10 years.
“I’ve always been terribly interested in colour, design and shapes,” he says. “Cars, boats, aeroplanes, flowers and birds – it’s that simple. The psyche of an artist is to communicate, whether it’s a painting or my garden.”