American artist Sridhar Ramasami has it all: A wife, a child and a gallery of his own in Songzhuang, a small town on the outskirts of Beijing.
The 50-year-old first came to Songzhuang as a backpacker six years ago.
“I had just come from visiting Shandong, Gansu and Jiangxi provinces, but the artistic atmosphere in Songzhuang was by far the best,” he recalls. “This is a paradise for artists – free, dynamic and inclusive.”
Ten years ago, he was living a successful – albeit stressful – life in Miami. He was an engineer and earned a high salary.
“That was not the kind of life I wanted. I wanted to be a painter and do something more creative,” he says.
“Songzhuang is unique. There are so many artists, all from around the world. We have so many galleries and stores – all just within walking distance – as well as a great community of volunteers.”
Ramasami combines art and technology in his paintings. “I was an engineer, so I like to use materials, such as plastic and resin, and I use 3-D printing.”
He married a local woman in early 2016, and their daughter was born in January.
“I’ve taken root in China. I am a Songzhuang local now.”
In the mid-1990s, artists started to come to Songzhuang, which is now home to more than 200 foreign and thousands of Chinese artists.
They hold exhibitions and expos, and build websites to sell their art.
Besides the Chinese market, Ramasami also keeps an eye on the US and Indian markets.
“I hold exhibitions in these countries, and my paintings sell well,” he says.
“‘Made in Songzhuang’ is now valued. Songzhuang is a conduit for Chinese culture to interact with the world.”
In the past five years, artists in Songzhuang have sold an average of 1,000 paintings. They are in the collections of museums of more than 30 countries, according to a Tongzhou cultural official.
“A decade ago, there were no stores, no bars, no cafes – only farmers and us,” Ramasami says.
Restaurants, bars and residential compounds have appeared. However, this gentrification is not without its downside, and many of the community’s artists have concerns.
Ramasami earns about 100,000 yuan ($14,500) a year selling his paintings, which barely covers his family’s living expenses. Moreover, some people worry the artistic environment will be diluted if more outside businesses set up shop.
Artists like Ramasami want Songzhuang to be known as an art town.
As Beijing is on its way to becoming a major cultural center, Tongzhou district is also upgrading its art town. It is staging more activities for artists and is gaining in popularity.