Niki Hastings-McFall is an acclaimed New Zealand artist. Raised by her grandmother believing her 15-year-old mother was her sister, she found her father only a few months before he died

1. You've built an aviary next to your home in Henderson - what do you keep in there?

Currently I've got five magpies and two parrots. I was rehabilitating a wood pigeon, too, but she's now gone to a specialist. I've had birds for about seven years and this space (an industrial warehouse) is perfect for it. I could never go back to a normal house now. We had one in Te Atatu with 2.5 bedrooms. Lovely neighbours, but I always felt like the odd one out. Here, everyone is weird and it's the most comfortable I have ever been.

The magpies are great mimics. I had one who could do every police siren perfectly, because you hear a lot of those around here.

2. What is the fascination with birds?
You can't anthropomorphise birds like we do with cats or dogs but they're like a microcosm of humanity. Birds are in every culture's fables or vernacular sayings, they're the connection between the earth-bound and the heavenly. You get to know a bunch of sparrows and they are all very different personalities, which sounds obvious but we miss it, I think.

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I've fostered upwards of 20 magpies and they are all so different. They're vilified for committing the cardinal sin of not being indigenous, but they have an amazing sense of humour. They'll mimic the sound of my phone then laugh as they watch me hunting around for it.

3. Did you have birds growing up?
We had one budgie, which I thought was the most boring pet in the world.

I grew up in Titirangi so loved the bush and the beach. When I was about 10, at school I was running around telling everyone I was adopted, just to get attention. The kids were saying "no you're not". Then the next day one girl said "my mum says I have to apologise because you are adopted". When I went home and laughed about that, mum said, "Well, how would you feel if I said you were?" My glamorous older sister who I idolised and who always looked down her nose at me was actually my mother. She would come every Sunday to our house for dinner. That Sunday I went running up to her going "mum!" and she just shuddered.

4. What caused that rejection, do you think?
She was pregnant at 15 to "an Islander!" which was terrible in my [English] family. She wasn't allowed to go out during the day in case she was seen. She told me later it was the worst time of her life. It was 1958, 59. I was sent to an orphanage but my mother begged for me to come home for Christmas and then my grandparents decided they liked the fat little picaninny so they adopted me, which made my mother hostage to me for the rest of her life. She did her "duty" but she didn't like it. We've been through years of not talking, and when my grandmother died she left her money to me and not my mother's other children and so none of them speak to me now.

5. What about your father?
I found him in the phone book when I was in my early 30s. He was dying of bowel cancer but we had a few months together and I got to know my Samoan family. The first time I saw him was in the hospital. He looked like a skeleton in pyjamas and he said, "What do you think of your old man then?" He was a lovely man. He'd been a recidivist womaniser, terribly charming. He taught me that it's never too late to find your blood family, and that people can love you for years even though you've never met.

6. Has your relationship with your mother affected other relationships in your life?
It's always going to have an effect but you can choose to let it warp you or you can choose to try to understand and empathise, turn it into a positive thing. I've been with Jason for almost 21 years. We met at [Manukau Institute of Technology] contemporary jewellery school. I immediately thought "woah" but he had a partner. Luckily for me she went with someone else. He's 11 years younger than me but I didn't tell him that for ages.

7. How did you end up in the art world?
I loved art at school but wasn't allowed to do it because I was in the academic stream. I also couldn't draw but I always made things. Just like my mum [grandmother]: she would be there at night always making something with her hands. Knitting, crochet, tapestry. A lot of people make things. I always made presents for people - rubbish out of rubbish really. For years after school I worked in bars because I just wanted to party. Growing up I wasn't even allowed to go to the movies in case I ended up like my mother.

8. Why jewellery?
I'd been living overseas with my ex-boyfriend who was a motorcycle racer. We'd been all over the world racing and it had got me out of that party scene. I wasn't drinking anymore and when we came back I just thought I wouldn't go back into bar work. I went into the Department of Labour, as it was then, and said I needed a new job and they pointed me to this little file cabinet. There was a brochure there for the jewellery course [Bachelor of Visual Arts in jewellery] and I thought "cool, I can't afford jewellery and I can make presents out of it".

9. Your art has now been exhibited all over the world: why do you think it resonates with people?
Perhaps because it's pretty and they can hang it on the wall? I don't know really. It just has. A lot of the time I've been called a Samoan artist which I've been a bit uncomfortable with because I'm not. I'm afakasi [Pakeha and Samoan] which I call Safakasi. You can get looked down upon by Samoan society a bit. I use lei a lot in my work - there are 4000 of them from the $2 shop in the arts festival work, wrapping the trees. When I first walked into my father's Onehunga home there were lei hung on all the pictures, just like I had hung my necklaces around pictures at my house. It immediately felt like home.

10. How difficult has it been to make art your life?
With the benefit of hindsight, in many ways it was inevitable, so not difficult at all to "make" it my life. To sustain it has often been many days in the wilderness and a frequent test of faith.

11. What did your parents teach you that you would never pass on?
My mum [grandmother] took me to [Presbyterian] church every Sunday. My dad [grandfather] spent the majority of his life working, not exactly in quiet desperation, but something akin. He died about a year after retirement. I would never inflict organised religion upon anyone - too many wasted beautiful sunny Sundays and I could never see the sense, if there was a choice, of working to live a life that was not a "life".

12. Has art been therapy for you?
It's sanity. If you are feeling really bad and you start making, you just feel better. There have been a lot of mental health issues in my family but making takes you away from what's going on, shuts your mind down, you focus on something else. About seven years ago I had breast cancer and chemotherapy. I'm still petrified every day because you just don't know what will happen. But when I'm making, it's gone.

Niki Hastings-McFall's installation Fale Ula will transform Aotea Square into Pacific colour and birdsong. Auckland Arts Festival, March 4-22.