Painting is a physical response of my body, my spirit, my chi: Gregory Burns

Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo welcomed Gregory Burns as the hotel’s first artist-in-residence from 3 December leading up to 19 December.

Gregory Burns is a renowned American artist, who is also a three-time Paralympic athlete, having won gold medals and set world records in swimming pools from Barcelona to Sydney.
As a contemporary artist, his paintings were displayed in dozens of solo exhibitions plus dozens of group exhibitions in at least 16 countries.

He is also a motivational speaker, and has spoken to many audiences on a wide range of interests.

We sat down for a quick chat with Gregory regarding his choice of Shangri-La as the place for his residency, and what he hopes to achieve during his short stint in Sri Lanka.

Covered in paint after a three-hour session with a group of young aspiring artists in one of the many workshops he’s conducting during his time here, Greg was all smiles, content with having made an impact on a group of fantastic young minds.

Speaking about the session he just conducted, Greg said: “I was happy to see the kids really come out of their shells, as is usual with children of 10-15 years; they start off really shy but by the end they were all smiles.”

“When we summed up the session, and asked the kids what they felt, something they all had to say was that it was freeing and fun, and I feel that is really what I wanted them to get out of it.”

Finding their own voice

Speaking about art and how, whether it be in Sri Lanka or America, it is never the number one subject and more often than not is the first one to get cut, and so kids do not get the opportunity to explore this side of life too freely.

His goal for these classes is to help the children, adults, or anyone participating, to “find their own voice”. “What I like to do is to come in and introduce them to something new and different and then send them on their way with enough of a prod so that they find their own way,” he said.

Jack of all trades

Speaking about how he went from being a world-class athlete to a renowned artist, Greg pointed out that it was never one or the other. He was a swimmer and painter since he was five or six years old – never just one.

When he was in university, he came to the realisation that mastery is obtained through focus and so he chose to dedicate his time to painting and sports.

Painting is a physical activity

Greg, whose wife is a photographer, says that while he respects photography, he feels as though it entails merely clicking a button, whereas painting is a physical activity, much like a sport. Pointing to his crutches he said: “These are clean, but my studio crutches are covered in paint. They’re beautiful because I splash and splatter and move when I paint, it gets everywhere. It’s a physical response of my body, my spirit, my chi.”

“There’s something to be said for the independence of painting”

This is why he enjoyed swimming – the fact that it afforded him independence. “All I needed to swim was a swimming suit and a pair of goggles, I didn’t need a racing wheelchair, a hand cycle, a toboggan, or a javelin, I just needed the goggles, the suit, and the rest was up to me.”

He said that the allure of independence offered via painting and swimming certainly had a connection with him having Polio. He said: “To me, if I could walk or swim somewhere, instead of driving or flying I’d much rather do that.”

Greatest achievements

Speaking about his most memorable moments in life, he gushed about his experience swimming in the Paralympics in 1996, stating that it was a pinnacle for him because, having lived most of his life outside of home, to have his peak as an athlete on home soil, in America, in the presence of his family was a real moment.

He also mentioned his participation in Korea’s Ironman Triathlon, stating that he managed to successfully complete it. He then shared an incredible story about a workshop he conducted last year, which has proved to be an experience he is likely to never forget.
Greg has done nearly 80 exhibitions around the world, each of which he rates on a scale of one to 10. Many of them score somewhere in the middle, apart from an exhibition in Beijing, which scored 10. He spoke fondly of an outstanding experience he had just last year – a workshop he conducted for 931 alpha male and female business executives where he got them all to create a 8-foot high 48-foot long wall of art.

The video is available on his website (, and is a real sight to see, and Greg Burns rates this particular experience on his scale as a well deserved 12.

Why Shangri-La, Sri Lanka

Gregory has had a longstanding relationship with Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, where he was first introduced as an artist-in-residence in 2010 and 2011 at Shangri-La Maldives, and then at Shangri-La Tokyo in 2012.

During his time here, he engages with the communities of Sri Lanka, including an art competition by the special education unit in “Navajeevana” – a non-governmental organisation based in the Hambantota District of southern Sri Lanka, and also by delivering a motivational speech towards the youth in Colombo’s neighbouring community.

By Dimithri Wijesinghe

Photos by Pradeep Dambarage