Q&A: Gregory Burns

We talk to the Paralympian-turned-painter ahead of his show Fly

Photo: Lucy Chiswell

Gregory Burns is the only abstract artist to have won six medals at three Paralympics. Before, during and since his 27 year swimming career, the ex-athlete has travelled and painted all over the world. As his exhibition 'Fly' opens at the USA Trading Center in Shanghai on Thursday 31 January, Time Out quiz him on his brush stroke and his back stroke

You seem to traditionally have been drawn to the peaceful corners of Asia, yet you return here often. What is it that interests you about Shanghai?

A lot is to do with the River South Art Centre [the venue co-hosting the Fly exhibition]. This is Steve Wong’s place, I’ve known Steve for almost a decade, my first exhibition here was in 2007 and I’ve done three series here in this incredible venue.

Shanghai is very active, and you know that cuts both ways: it’s distracting, but it’s also inspiring and interesting. There’s a lot of rub here, and to be an artist, I think you need a rub. You need something to push up against, to force you to do stuff you may not normally do under more peaceful and tranquil circumstances. I was living on The Bund for four months this summer and with a million people walking past your apartment each day there’s an energy.


Yet your representations of Shanghai feel peaceful. Do you find peace here?

Yeah, I do. When I paint, I become peaceful. Painting is like my meditation; it’s very active, like my sports, but it’s a very internal thing. Yes there’s angst in painting sessions, but that’s not what I want to express. I want it to inspire and comfort people. I want it to be the light, as opposed to the dark. And you can find that light anywhere.


Mark Rothko seems to be reflected in your work, but unlike yours, his art was often a representation of difficulty and torment. Has he been an influence of yours?

Definitely. Regardless of what his art was about, for me, it is the enveloping space that those paintings create, the colours, the juxtaposition of colours, and the very simple format. I really loved Rothko, amongst other artists. But my work is also about overcoming challenges, it’s about perseverance, it’s about searching and finding, getting lost and getting found, leaving home, finding something and then going home again. It’s cyclical.


And the colours?

They come out of my feelings. When I paint, the colour is right or wrong. It’s very simple. Many of my best paintings are paintings that are done on top of other paintings. Life is about layers, so why wipe any of them out? Sometimes, you can be painting over something you did five years ago and a little corner of colour will come out and it’s like, wow that’s great.


Bill and Hilary Clinton have one of your paintings in their collection. How did this come about?

In 2000, after the Sydney Olympics and Paralympics, the teams were invited to the White House to meet Bill. So on behalf of the US Paralympic swim team, I gave him a painting.


And did you present it to him yourself?

No I didn’t. There were 700 athletes who all went through a line to meet Bill. So there was no time or way for me to go ‘Oh Bill, here’s your painting’. I took the painting to Washington with me and when I was at the White House I found one of Bill’s ‘aids’ (not Monica, somebody else), and I told her I had a painting for Bill Clinton and would she be kind enough to give it to him for me? So she took it and she presented it to him at another time.


You spent a year in Taipei studying Chinese painting, Calligraphy and Art History. Can you tell us more about that?

I was with a San Jose State University programme in Taiwan for one year from 1984-5. I had a great teacher called Liang Dan-Fong. She understood East and West and realised that we were just Humpty Dumpties that fell off a pumpkin truck in Taiwan and didn’t know squat.

She was able to meet us half way and was there to nurture us and explain what Chinese culture was all about. After I had travelled for 16 months through China, Tibet, Nepal, India, Pakistan and back through China, I returned to Taiwan to continue my studies with Liang Dan-Fong in Chinese painting.

A lot of the countries you have visited practice Buddhism. Are you Buddhist yourself?

Yeah, I’m a closet Buddhist. I do Zen Buddhist meditation, but instead of studying it as a subject, I try to absorb it whilst I paint. When I’m sitting in a temple for two hours painting, a peacefulness comes over me, and I try to absorb the aura of that religion or space. 

I try to be a Buddhist but I suck. I was raised as a Catholic so I’ve got this Christian-Buddhist thing going on. I have done a lot of temple series throughout Asia, but one of my earlier series was called Sacred Sites, including Cathedrals, Temples, Stonehenge, Newgrange and so on. I’m an equal opportunities employer I guess.


So is faith quite a big part of life for you?

It is yeah. Although I’m in Shanghai and one loses one’s spirituality in some places more than others, I think I’m always, at the bottom of my root, connected with something spiritual. And when I get too far away from that, it’s like I’m spinning around and I get lost, so I try to bring myself back and that’s what my art does. It’s kind of that meditation that brings me back to my core.


As part of the USA swimming team, you participated in the 1992 Barcelona, 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Paralympics, setting multiple world records and winning six gold and silver medals. Did you find time to paint during this period?

Oh sure. For an Olympic year, leading up to the Olympics, I would swim five or six days a week, swim five miles a day and do weights and training and all that, but there are still a lot of hours in the day. The hardest part actually was when I was living in Hong Kong in 1992. 

I had two jobs: I worked for Star TV at night from 9pm–9am three days a week and all day Saturday, and then I had a day job 9am-5pm Monday through Friday, and I trained before I went to work and during my lunch hour. That sucked. That was too full on.


Is there a connection between painting and swimming, do you think?

Of course. Not just swimming but I think to be a great artist you have to live a big life. Swimming, travelling, working, watching movies, hiking in the woods, swimming in the ocean or whatever; all these things feed into being a bigger person or giving you a bigger perspective. 

I still swim every day. I swim a kilometre a day even though I’m not training for anything, and I’ve started doing iron man events as well. So I think that the swimming feeds the art because it keeps me healthy. It keeps my energy going. 

A lot of people say ‘Oh you’re an artist? And you’re an athlete? They’re not connected.’ I don’t agree at all. I think they are totally. And when I paint now, it’s like my sport. If you see me paint, I’m using my whole body.


You have written two books: Painted Journey in English, and What Life Has Taught Me in Mandarin. Do you see yourself writing another?

Yeah. I do blogs now. When I was growing up I loved comic books; a little bit of writing and a lot of pictures. My blog is the same way. I think the next book I publish will be an e-book. Then you don’t have to store it. The Painted Journey weighs 1.2 kilograms, so to store it and to ship it, it’s just a hassle. So why not just go online and read it that way?


If you had to choose: painting or swimming or writing?

It would probably have to be art because I can write in my paintings…

For more information on the exhibition, see Fly

For Gregory's blog, visit http://gbatjourney.blogspot.com and for more information and recent works from the artist, go to www.gregoryburns.com