From law reformer to modern minimalist.

Gill Gatfield's legal career started at Brookfields as a solicitor, then she went on to work at the Ministry of Women's Affairs as a senior advisor on law reform.

"At the Ministry of Women's Affairs I worked on a wide range of policy development including pornography law reform, child support tax, employment discrimination, and women in combat."

A senior advisor at the NZ Law Society subsequently, Gatfield won a research scholarship to write a book about women in the legal profession. "It seemed apt to use the legal profession and judiciary as a case study of the impact of historic and unlawful sex discrimination," she says.


In 1993, the lawyer set up Equity Works, a specialist consultancy business working with companies who wanted to provide equal opportunities for minority groups in their organisations.

The new century came, and Gatfield took a big leap, starting a Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland's Elam School in 2002, the move prompted by some inspirational art classes at the Art Station in Ponsonby.

"I found I was sneaking away from my legal/business work to learn and practice my art," says Gatfield.

She finished her MFA in 2004 and has worked as an artist ever since, winning an enviable reputation in a short time. She doesn't regret her career in law.

"My career moves have been prompted by many factors - the only consistent guiding principles being intuition and timing, which includes an element of luck. With the benefit of hindsight, they seem less like moves and more like a natural progression," she says.

"In law I learnt how small things can make an immense difference - the omission of a word in a statute, the meaning of 'person', the legal right to speak, the politics of process, and lots more. Those details continue to be relevant in my art practice."

What drives Gatfield is her appreciation of precision, integrity and humanity. "Maybe that's why I was in those sectors - I've just transitioned to art."

Gatfield describes her style as 'modern minimalism'. The Wallace Art Awards 2011 finalist, produces abstract paintings and sculptures using stone, glass, grass, electric currents and magnetic fields. Her work features in national awards, art collections, and public and solo exhibitions.

"I seek work that has the potential for invention. I regard my legal, writing, and business work as creative work. The type of work within those fields that interested me was focused on inventive use of processes or disciplines to achieve useful change."
There is more common ground in law and art than you might think.

"I enjoy inquisitive problem solving in whatever forms it presents. As a barrister I investigated complex cases of discrimination - individual and systemic.

"I enjoyed working in new areas often where traditional processes either failed or didn't exist - so new ideas or approaches needed to be developed," she adds.

For those who know Gatfield well, her transition to something new is no surprise. Mai Chen, the prominent public lawyer and chair of NZ Global Woman, has known Gatfield since 1989, meeting her when Gatfield was working at the Ministry of Women's Affairs.

"Whatever she does, she wants to be the best. She was her unique self in law - she wrote her book, she started a business. With her art, she's struck out on her own, she's created a new genre, and she's winning awards," says Chen.

Gatfield is in her 40s and married with three children. She and her husband, also a lawyer, are prepared to take the risk to be true to themselves, says Chen.

"She could have continued down the law track very comfortably, but she took a risk," says the lawyer. "She has a very interesting mind, she's always thinking. And she's always striving," adds Chen.

"It's very interesting to see someone moving around the kaleidoscope of her talents and fulfilling each one so well," she adds.

Gatfield's numerous achievements in her relatively short career as an artist must confirm her decision to leave her past career behind. Her pieces are bought by overseas private collectors and exhibited all over the country.

Her family background contributes to her art, she says. Gatfield grew up in Kawerau, one of five daughters. Her mother was a maths teacher and her father taught science, then becoming a builder, and entrepreneur. "They both appreciated aesthetics, physics and nature. A lot rubbed off on me."

Gatfield says her other influences in art are travel, archaeology and architecture.

"I take inspiration from the complexity of the human condition and our relationships, to one another and to the world we inhabit. Gender, race, culture, nature - are part of that fabric."

"Feminism is one of the political dimensions in my work. The idea of grass roots (referring to the early women's movement) for example, is explored in my lawn works."

The former lawyer operates from a large factory unit in Whangaparaoa as the scope of her work has outgrown a home studio.

"I had taken over the garden - experimenting with different stock for my grass paintings, making barbwire sculptures, and building masonry columns, and was using a double garage for large indoor works. When my work in progress infiltrated the hallway and was creeping into the lounge, it seemed clear that bedrooms were next so it was time for me to consolidate in one location."

What next for this talented woman? She is not finished with learning. She has toyed with applying to Medical School. "I am fascinated by how the body and mind works but I have an aversion to blood so engineering could be a better option, then I could design and build bridges..."