Enterprising artist paints new Jinshan image

Jun 26, 2017

Li Wei, a native of suburban Shanghai's Jinshan District, realizes his art dream through his private Sky High Art Museum.
The Fish Pride Home promotes "low-carbon living."
Fish Pride Home, a Ryokan-style hostel by the sea, represents Li Wei's passion for design and space.
Li Wei

JINSHAN in southwest Shanghai is famous for its peasant painting, and Li Wei, a Jinshan resident, is adding more artistic and poetic ambience to the suburban district.

In 2010, Li set up the first art training classes for primary and middle school students in Jinshan. Seven years later, he opened the district's first private art museum, Sky High Art Museum, that sits on 10,000 square meters and houses five exhibition halls, a bookstore and a cafeteria.

Born in 1972, Li graduated in art from East China Normal University.

"At that time, Jinshan was considered a faraway place in Shanghai. I clearly remember when I applied for jobs after graduation in the city, I was turned away. No applicants from Jinshan and Chongming due to the distance, because the employer had to find a place in the city that added to the cost."

Things are however different today, and it is unlikely anyone would be overlooked for being born outside the city center.

Li went back to Jinshan and worked for a private software company.

"But I never gave up my interest in design," he says. "I worked as a freelancer on some design projects, keeping my passion for art alive."

And he struck gold while doing business in garment trade.

Different from his peers who try and develop their business, Li instead chose to chase his art dream.

"Jinshan had Shanghai's earliest coastline and the famous Liangzhu Culture," he says. "But many people related it only to petrochemicals," referring to the Jinshan Petrochemical Corp.

During his travels, Li visited art museums and homestays around the world, and was surprised to find that "sometimes the best art museums were not in big cities," like in Japan and Switzerland.

Back in Jinshan, he worked on his dream. His art museum inside the Sky High Cultural and Creative Industrial Park used to be an old garment factory.

"You can see that I have used sculptures to lighten up the space, which makes it really look different," he says.

If the museum is supposed to be a platform for young artists, then Fish Pride Home, a three-story Ryokan-style hostel by the sea, represents his passion for design and space.

"The building used to be an old house. All the materials I used in renovating this building are old bricks and woods. Even the furniture is old. There is nothing new," he says. "There are 24 rooms, named after the 24 solar terms."

Rather than hiring a design firm to do the job, Li did it himself.

"It fully reflects my aesthetic taste," he says. "You will find the Chinese culture of 'borrowing a scenery from a distance'."

Li, who is now working on other projects, is curious to explore the relationship between man and nature.

"I am building a small sightseeing house in a forest. Built at an uneven angle, visitors will be standing half way down the ground and observe the view outside through a glass," Li says enthusiastically. "It would be an amazing experience."

"The countryside is not all about nongjiale (farm-stays) where you eat delicious dishes or pick up strawberries and grapes," Li says. "I hope future visitors to Jinshan will discover an artistic environment where they can see exhibitions, have coffee, read books and stay."

Q: For many culture and creative industrial park, the financial pressure is a big headache. So how did you solve this daunting problem?

A: I also feel the pressure. The size of my art museum is not be big, but elegant. That might lower my operational cost. I hope this culture and creative industrial park attracts more creative minds so that the rental fee becomes another source of our income.

Q: Many of the decorative pieces are from your own collection. Do you still remember your first collection?

A: In 2010 I visited a local art fair. I remember it was a limited print from a young artist that cost me around 2,000 yuan (US$294). I am not a professional collector. My interest varies from contemporary sculpture, ink-wash painting and oil painting to antique furniture. But I think it is so good that I can share my collections with ordinary people.

Q: Your Fish Pride Home is quite impressive. What inspired you to do such a project?

A: In my eyes, it is a perfect example of "low-carbon dwelling." The building itself is akin to a collection of history, and it is in harmony with the surrounding environment. I am always enamored with things with historical traces. Next time when you come toFish Pride Home, have a look at the lamps there. I am sure you will be surprised.

Q: The success of an art museum not only lies in its environment and space, but also in its contents as well. So what's your plan for future exhibitions?

A: You are right. So I plan to cooperate with local art fairs and focus on young artists. There will also be international events. The foreign artists could be our resident artists and create their works in Jinshan.

Q: Apart from promoting the young artists, what are the other purposes of this art museum?

A: There are a cluster of intangible cultural heritage projects in Jinshan, but they are not widely known to the public. I am going to do a "Jinshan Project" with books and documentaries and introduce them to more people outside Jinshan.

Q: You read a lot about architecture. Who is your favorite architect?

A: Geoffrey Bawa, from Sri Lanka.