When the opportunity presented itself, he left at the drop of a hat, got onto a boat, and sailed across half the world making TV documentaries. Sounds like a fantasy? This is what artist Gregory Burns did.
Art, sports and a yearning to travel have directed his trajectory. Hard work, optimism and a thirst for life became the ingredients of his success.
While growing up in the US, Gregory identified three ‘intentions’ or desires that he wanted to achieve or fulfil. These seeds of thought, once planted, slowly took form and grew to became reality. He wanted to:
- Sail the South Pacific with a purpose.
- Represent his country, America.
- Realise his dream of staying on island resorts because he loved the sea.
Actualization Through Sheer Determination
Gregory had an atypical upbringing. As diplomats, his parents had been stationed in many countries around the world since he was a child. Sadly, he contracted polio when he was just a year old while his parents were posted in Jerusalem.
When he was four, he was told he would never be able to walk.
Mobility and self-sufficiency became an obsession when he realized he could not move as freely as everyone else. Despite being paralyzed from the waist down, he decided early on that he could do what anybody else could, and then some.
At the recommendation of his doctor, the young Gregory started swimming. When he began first grade, he was determined not to attend a school for the disabled. The condition for enrolment in his local elementary school was to be able to get to his classes on the second floor.
There was no elevator.
His tenacity paid off. With the support of his parents, he learnt to climb stairs with his braces and crutches. During adolescence, he became more self-conscious as girls started to catch his attention. He decided to exercise extensively to build up his strength and body, further shaping his personality and pushing him towards more autonomy.
“Every day, I undertake two things I do not feel like doing. I feel the need to keep inspiring myself. In society, nobody is setting the bar or expectations for people like me. I resolved to set my own goals and keep moving the goalposts,” he says.
Throughout his life, Gregory has continued to meet and achieve his own targets and objectives. In the Paralympics Games in 1992, 1996 and 2000, he bagged two gold medals, two silver medals, and a bronze medal. He also set four world records. Despite his physical limitations, he continues to encourage and inspire others through his own achievements, and as a motivational speaker.
We often lose that initial wonder at our sheer existence we had as children. Whether it was a need for affirmation or to discover the purpose of his existence, Gregory never lost his capacity for joy, gratitude or curiosity about the world around him. He pushes himself every day, taking nothing for granted.
“We all have our share of challenges. You take your knocks in life, but you get back up and carry on. Keep walking and keep growing is my motto. It has carried me all over the world!” he explains.
Sailing the South Pacific With a Purpose
When Gregory came across ‘The Return of Marco Polo’, he was in Tahiti on route back to Taiwan from California. He had left America at 24 years of age to learn Chinese calligraphy and Chinese painting in Taipei and stayed on for another five years, working at a radio and television station.
‘The Return of Marco Polo’ was a 125 foot (38 metres) Danish tug boat built in 1907. It was requisitioned by a group of Danish teachers, refitted with an engine and sent off to explore the third world. Its quest was to produce TV documentaries that would educate the developed countries. When it sailed, the boat would rock vigorously from side to side. The core team was a group of five who had left from Denmark. The other crew members joined the expedition at opportune times.
As Gregory was sketching in Bora Bora, he spoke to two girls at the jetty who were on the boat. Sailing around the South Pacific with a ‘mission’ was one of the things Gregory had hoped to do. Promoting understanding between cultures was pertinent to him. He was intrigued by their expedition and asked if he could join them.
The captain and the crew agreed to take him on board as he had some experience in television and could speak Mandarin. The boat was heading towards Hong Kong and they planned to produce some documentaries in China.
Without hesitation, he packed his bags and left with them the following day.
This journey took him from Tahiti to the Polynesian Islands, Tonga, Fiji, New Zealand and then onwards to Palau Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China.
Adventures on ‘Return of Marco Polo’
The 30-minute documentaries they produced aired on European TV channels. Each series would include an introduction to the city or island and interviews with residents. During Gregory’s nine-month journey on board, he contributed to about 20 such documentaries.
In Palau, they explored the formation of the distinctive jagged limestone structures and interviewed the manager of a giant clam hatchery. Giant clams are a source of food in the Pacific Islands and had been over-harvested. Farming baby giant clams and releasing them back into local waters helped increase its population and diversity.
In Manila, they spent days living at a vast garbage dumpsite in Manila named ‘Smoky Mountain’. Over 25,000 people lived in the slum, scavenging the landfill for a living. They told a story, not of despair, but one of hope for a better future.
When I asked if there were particularly memorable stories, Gregory spoke about his impressions during his stay on Suvarov Island in the Independent State of Samoa (previously known as Western Samoa) and American Samoa. ‘The Return of Marco Polo’ arrived after Tropical Cyclone Ofa had devastated the islands earlier that year. It was the worst storm that hit Polynesia in more than a hundred years, inflicting almost US$200 million in damage.
On Suvuroc island, they met and interviewed the resident caretaker, Tangi Jimmy, and heard first-hand how the few residents on the island had climbed up a big tree and stayed in the tree overnight to escape from the rising water on the island. After the cyclone passed, they used available resources to repair the damage and got back to their lives. In American Samoa, a state of emergency was declared and American aid was used to rebuild the disaster areas.
Gregory said “I was impressed with the independent spirit of Tangi Jimmy and his family. They did not ask or wait for help to arrive. They simply got on with it.”
Due to his childhood disability, mobility and independence have always been preoccupations in his life. Through sports and art, Gregory found his strength and expanded his world view. As he travelled, met new people and encountered new cultures, colours and ideas, the evolution of his career as an artist was set in motion.
In Part Two of this three-part series, we will explore what it means to be an ‘Artist in Residence’. The last 20 years have seen Gregory working and exhibiting at elite hotel resorts in exotic locations like the Maldives, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. He has been engaged for more than 40 residencies since 1999.