Gregory Burns has been an artist-in-residence in more than 40 coveted resorts over the last 20 years. His job, when he stays in these little oases of paradise, is to paint. Sometimes he converses with guests, teaches art, or goes scuba diving. A tough life, you might think. And indeed, he’s not going to complain!
The Amilla Fushi, One & Only resorts, Banyan Tree, Shangri-La and Four Seasons are just some of the five-star hotels in some of the most exotic islands and the world’s best cities where Gregory has spent time.
And all this is part of his master plan to ‘live a big life.’
Scuba diving in the Maldives, exploring the local bazaar in Marrakech, or wandering in the temples and gardens of Tokyo for inspiration are just some of the myriads of adventures upon which he has embarked.
Striving to overcome his disability and find purpose in his work has been a lifetime endeavour for Gregory. Paralysed from the waist down as a result of contracting polio when he was a year old didn’t stop him from pursuing his dreams. He backpacked across China, Tibet, Nepal, and India. He made documentaries while sailing around the South Pacific with a television crew. He has, quite literally, ‘climbed mountains’.
You may ask, how did he get so lucky?
Hang On, What Exactly is an Artist-In-Residency?
You could see the artist-in-residence program as an exchange of services: the artist gets access to specialized resources or a source of inspiration; the host offers the artist the security of time and space to focus on their work.
What expenses are covered depends on the agreement. The host could also be a museum, a city or an institution. In return, the artist provides new knowledge and experiences for their visitors. It promotes the location and gives it the publicity they desire.
Gregory’s first experience as an artist-in-residence was serendipitous. As he loved the sea, he decided to visit St Croix Island in the Caribbean after finishing university. He camped out on the beach and sketched. While selling his etchings on the beach, he met the owner of a small hotel who offered him accommodation if he would work on some marketing projects for his hotel.
This experience resonated with Gregory. However, it was not till 20 years later when he became a professional artist that he had his first official invitation to paint at the Oberoi hotel in Lombok, Indonesia.
Open Your Own Window of Opportunity
Gregory never seems to miss an incredible opportunity. It may appear as if some people have all the luck but more often than not, it is about having the right attitude, the persistence and courage to take the road less travelled.
He says ‘ You should never be afraid to give up what you have for what you can become. Frustration is a double-edged sword. Embracing it helps you overcome your negativity and find answers you are looking for.’
In 2012, Gregory was part of the Artist-In-Residency program at the historical Swatch Art Peace hotel situated at the Bund, Shanghai. Here, he resided with a dozen other foreign and local artists. These programs are attractive because they create opportunities for artists like Gregory to explore, make connections and create work. The immersion and cultural exchange expose the artist to international trends. Interactions forge relationships between artists and other stakeholders. It brings new ideas and generates other opportunities.
At resort hotels, Gregory would work in his allocated studio for five or six days of the week. The hotel would organise ‘meet the artist’ sessions or asked him to teach a few art classes. In the Maldives, he taught guests how to sketch underwater while scuba diving.
On similar arrangements on cruise ships, he would give classes and talks while the ship was at sea. It also gave him the chance to travel and meet diverse characters from all over the world — many of whom he still keeps in touch with. He believes that to be a good artist, one must ‘live a big life.’ That means to experience and take in as much as you can.
Gregory’s next dream location is to paint on safari in Tanzania, Africa.
It won’t be a surprise if he makes this dream come true as well.
Art as Marketing and Free Expression
The artist-in-residence is not a new concept. In ancient Greece, feudal Japan and during the Renaissance, most artworks were financed by those in a position of power like influential families, rulers or religious and civic institutions. It was a means of endorsing their values and ideas, enhancing their status, or spreading a message.
The Medici in Florence were influential in supporting some of the most famous artists we know now, Botticelli and da Vinci for example. Art enhanced the status of cities and they vied for the best artists and masterpieces.
Contrary to what we think of art today, art was not about free expression. Most artists did not have the means or liberty to do as they wished. They were commissioned to produce what their clients wanted. In return, they were paid for their work or offered housing and board.
Often there was a contract stipulating the fees owed, the description of the work to be done and delivery deadlines. Like in all contracts, any dissatisfaction gave rise to quarrels and litigations. Leonardo de Vinci was notorious for not finishing works he got bored with. Michelangelo caused much vexation when he refused to let even his patron, Pope Julius II, view the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel until it was completed.
Patronage provided security for the artist. Like today, should their reputation grow and their work become widely appreciated, it would give them more control in their creations.
Where to Next?
Gregory’s work has received international recognition. He has exhibited all over the world. Some locations include the J.F. Kennedy Center, USA, Today Art Museum, China, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Taiwan, Euphrat Museum of Art, USA. He is a world champion swimmer at the Paralympics. His achievements in art and sports have made him a sought after motivational speaker at corporates, schools and community associations.
How did someone who only became a full-time professional artist at 40 years of age come so far and achieve so much?
‘With each project you start, it is normal to be outside of your comfort zone,’ he tells us. ‘It takes a lot of stumbling in the dark and making friends with doubt and uncertainty.’
You can find out about Gregory’s art residencies on his website.
In Part Three of this series, we will explore this artist’s intense journey and the principles that have guided him through his life. And in case you missed Part One, The Inspirational Journey Of Artist and Paralympian Champion Gregory Burns, you can read it here.