Whatever we do, many of us have a strange love/hate relationship with Shanghai. It can inspire you one minute and grind you down the next. American artist, writer and athlete Gregory Burns has been coming to Shanghai since 1984, and despite him describing it as 'a city that chips away at my heart,’ it’s in Shanghai that he feels most inspired.
"Shanghai is the antithesis of this 'Zen monk' I kind of fashion myself after... and yet I never paint anywhere like I paint here."
We were lucky enough to meet up with Gregory at the River South Art Center, a space where he created many of the paintings that feature in his exhibitions ‘Shanghai Connection’ and ‘Fly’, the latter opening at the USA Trading Center on Xuanhua Lu on the 31st of January. There are still paint flecks on the floor from where he worked.
A lover of nature, it's surprising to find that Gregory has this creative relationship with Shanghai.
‘I’d rather live on a mountaintop or an ocean or live in nature… I like to be outside. Shanghai is the antithesis of this ‘Zen monk’ I kind of fashion myself after. I used to live at the Mahatma Ghandi yoga ashram in the mountains of Santa Barbara and that was kind of how I thought you should live and how you should be healthy and commune with nature… and yet I never paint anywhere like I paint here.”
‘Maybe it is what’s called "the rub"’, Gregory continues. ‘There’s a lot of rub here, emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, and that’s why I think I do create stuff here that I don’t create anywhere else, that I couldn’t create anywhere else… I could go to Singapore or California or nature or the woods and I wouldn’t have whatever it is that drives that, that makes me want to get up every day and paint.’
It’s hard to imagine that anyone would pick Shanghai over a beautiful nature retreat, but for Gregory, fighting past the myriad distractions of Shanghai rewards him with a special kind of focus
‘I get more in the zone here. This is going to sound terrible, but because of all the distractions you really have to work… you know you want to get something done so you force yourself... you have to fight to get into that zone. When you’re in the ashram in the mountains you’re like “it’s so nice here…maybe I’ll swim, maybe I’ll hike… It’s like you have too much time on your hands. It’s too beautiful. You need something to push against you. Shanghai has that. [You can] lose it here – you run with all the distractions of sex, drugs and rock and roll. It’s like a big candy store. When you’re young you can eat candy all day and get up in the morning. As you get older and want to do something you have to say “I can’t eat candy all day today.” You have to discipline yourself.’
“Being a painter’s like being an athlete, you have to train when you don’t want to and you have to paint when you don’t want to, you’ve got to keep showing up.”
The comparison is apt, because Gregory is, in fact, a world record breaking athlete. Having suffered from polio at age 10, he relies on crutches and leg braces to walk, but this hasn’t stopped him from pushing himself to the limit as a swimmer, setting Paralympic world records for the USA team. The focus that he brings to his art is the same focus that allows him to excel in the pool.
"Being a painter's like being an athlete, you have to train when you don’t want to and you have to paint when you don’t want to, you've got to keep showing up."
‘It’s what the Zen Buddhists would call ‘no mind’. It’s when you get so focused that it’s not that you’re not thinking any more, you’re just being that creature, doing what that creature does in the situation.’
‘I set world records twice in my life without even breathing hard because I was in the zone. It was the trial so you didn’t have to win it, you just had to show up and swim. I swam faster than I’d ever swam in my life, and I looked up and it was a world record. When it was time for the final and all the pressure was on, there’s no way I could get back into the zone so I didn’t do as well as I did in the trial. That’s a good example of ‘no mind’.’
It’s refreshing and inspiring to find someone who ascribes to one philosophy that allows them to succeed in two such completely different arenas, particularly when single-minded devotion to one activity is so often seen as the only way to excel. Can you imagine Ye Shiwen sitting down to paint after a hard day in the pool? But as Gregory points out, a human life has space for several of the ten-thousand hour chunks, made famous by Gladwell, that are supposedly required to achieve mastery of a subject. Travelling, painting, swimming and writing are all activities that he pursues to their fullest.
Why does it come as such a surprise to many people that a skilled athlete can be a painter as well?
‘First of all, people like boxes. You’re a reporter, I’m an athlete. That’s easy. The general perception is that people do one thing. To be a great artist or musician or actor you need to live a big life. You have to do lots of things. I’ve been short-changed in my career as an artist because people see me first as an athlete. They always have. Well, they see me first as a disabled person who has overcome obstacles and that plays very well into the sports thing. Then they bolt on the art stuff.’
Anyone who goes to see the exhibition will realize that this would be a vastly unfair judgement.
Gregory’s paintings in the Fly series demonstrate the richness of his experience in China and Shanghai. They contain elements of collage, with photos, notes and ticket stubs from places he has visited blending into the texture of the works, many of which represent, in a highly abstract way, scenes from his travels – Dunhuang, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City. Amongst his influences he lists Rothko and Jasper Johns, as well as Monet and Van Gogh. The paintings are a fitting testament to a life lived to its fullest.
WORDS BY ANNA BENNETT AND PETE J