Fifteen years ago, while living in Manayunk, artist Bernadette Stillo discovered what is today recognized as the largest juried arts exhibition in the Delaware Valley.
For 23 years, Stillo, who now has a family and resides just over the county line in Lower Merion Township, has been perfecting her craft as a professional ceramicist.
During that summer back in 1996, Stillo decided to take a chance and apply to participate in the annual Manayunk Arts Festival. She was accepted.
This weekend, Stillo will once again return to the show – she took a brief hiatus for a few years, but has been participating consistently since 2005 – serving as one of more than 280 artists and artisans from 26 states who will line closed-down Main Street in Manayunk to show off their works and wares.
“I think it’s a wonderful event,” Stillo said. "It’s always crowded and filled with lots of interesting people.”
One of the things Stillo enjoys most about the event, aside from the opportunity sell some works, of course, is the opportunity to meet folks from various walks of life and geographic locales.
And she also likes how the event has helped to put her former neighborhood of Manayunk, where she lived from 1994 to 2000, on the map.
“A lot of people make it a destination place,” she said. “People come for the show and they have dinner. They make a day of it.”
While this year’s arts festival will see returning artists such as Stillo, the show will also welcome newbies like John Wilson, a Kansas native who has been in Philly for two decades.
The former high school art teacher, who now focuses on his “functional pottery,” including large bowls, cups, and other pieces, applied to participate in this year’s Manayunk Arts Festival, and was thrilled when he was told he got in.
“I was just so honored that they picked me,” he said by phone from his home in Aston, Pa. “This is my first couple of years being a professional potter.”
Wilson was familiar with Manayunk, having had visited the Northwest Philly community throughout the years, so he jumped at the chance to show, and attempt to sell, his works at the large juried exhibit.
“We love walking around Manayunk,” he said. “It’s gorgeous.”
For artists like Stillo and Wilson, who make a living with their respective craft, shows like these, in which they could potentially see widespread exposure, can help both pay the bills and get their names known to the masses.
But that’s not to say it’s always an easy buck when it comes to participating in the event, which is scheduled for Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“You just have to be willing to do whatever it takes. You have to work hard,” Stillo said of being a professional artist. “It’s not an easy life. It’s not the big bucks.”
Yet while she’s not guaranteed to sell anything at the event, the arts festival is important for self-marketers like Stillo for other reasons.
“It lets you showcase new work to a new body of people,” she said. “That’s what art shows and craft shows are about.”
In addition to potters and ceramicists like Stillo and Wilson, the Manayunk Arts Festival will showcase works from artists and artisans specializing in photography, jewelry, sculpture, mixed media, woodwork, fiber, glass and more.
And this year, which marks number 22 for the annual event, will be special since the festival will include the unveiling of two out of three public art installations that are being done in partnership between the Manayunk Development Corp., which hosts the event, and the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program.
These are a “roving gallery” installation created by local artist Mat Tomezko, which consists of a series of portraits overlaid on abstract backgrounds, and a street medallion project created by Montreal street artist “Roadsworth,” a.k.a. Peter Gibson, which will involve paintings on streets at various intersections in and around the neighborhood.
The public art projects are being done to highlight Manayunk’s place in Philadelphia. They are being done in conjunction with the mural arts program, the MDC and the Manayunk Special Services District.
While organizers see the event as a way to promote what they view as Manayunk’s unique brand, participants are just exited to be a part of something big and inclusive, especially when it involves other like minds.
“It’s always fun to hear people who enjoy your work,” potter Wilson said on not just potential buyers, but fellow artists. “It makes you feel really good.”
To learn more about the 22nd Annual Manayunk Arts Festival, visit www.manayunk.com.