The well-heeled crowd at the Saint Louis Art Fair has made it the darling of artists across the country. Vendors of the highest caliber compete for a spot at the annual event, which yields unique treasures for shoppers and a great opportunity for artisans.

“It’s an excellent show. My husband and I were just discussing what it is about this show that makes it so good,” says jewelry artist Michele Friedman of Chicago. “All the factors come together. It’s a sophisticated community, No. 1. There’s great food, and it’s a good location. It all works.” This will be Friedman’s third year here, and she says that the fair is among her most successful shows. “It’s very intense for a short amount of time. You come in, you set up, the preview party brings people three or four deep, and it can stay that way throughout most of the show!”

Friedman has two lines of jewelry, but she ‘juried in’ with her line of oxidized silver mixed with wool felt. “I make little stones out of wool felt sheet and set it in my metal work,” she explains. “I wanted to incorporate color into my work but didn’t want to set stones because that’s commonplace; I figured it out finally with felt in the summer of 2004. This is the second year I’ve done the Saint Louis Art Fair with this line.” Friedman won two awards recently for her work.

“The fairgoers are very knowledgeable, enthusiastic and educated, and they love to support the artists financially as well as emotionally,” Friedman says. “I have been doing shows in the St. Louis area for more than seven years, and they’re among my most loyal clients. Quite a few have been buying from me for years, and they’re like friends at this point. They’re wonderful people, very down-to-earth and supportive.” Friedman should know: She has been traveling all over the country, missing only eight or nine states. “It’s an honor to be back in St. Louis,” she says.

Local artist Bill LaChance had always been aware of the art fair’s reputation, attending it in prior years and being impressed by the work he saw. Now he’s been accepted into the fair for the first time. “I’m really looking forward to it,” says LaChance. “One thing about participating in art fairs is you get so many people coming by and talking with you about your work. I always look forward to their perspectives and responses, from children to adults from all walks of life. And in terms of the quality of work and the number of people who attend, as well as just how smoothly orchestrated the whole event is, the Saint Louis Art Fair seems a cut above the other art fairs I’ve seen.”

A mixed media painter, LaChance primarily focuses his work on ‘encaustic,’ an old painting method that predates oil painting. “It’s an interesting process of using beeswax and pigment,” LaChance says. He has shown his work at Ann Nathan Gallery in Chicago and Gallery Fraga in Seattle.

“Through talking with people who have exhibited at the art fair in the past, it seems that people who are incumbent fairgoers are more serious collectors. They are an informed group. They know what they’re looking for and have existing art collections,” LaChance says.

Wisconsin sculptor Rick Foris will be back for his 10th St. Louis show this year. “It’s probably one of the best shows in the country,” the veteran artist says. “I always feel welcome, like I’m part of something the community’s really interested in. People are very knowledgeable, and sales are good. My work is contemporary, and I don’t have to explain it to people they already understand what’s going on. It’s very competitive to get into, and I feel good about having gotten in 10 times.”

Foris admits the big incentive for coming back is the sales. But that’s far from the whole picture. “It’s a really nice experience, too,” he notes. “We stay at the Sheraton, within walking distance of the show. You don’t have to drive while you’re there, and all the outdoor cafes are great. And they treat us really well at the show.”

Foris makes ceramics using the raku method of firing. His work is unique in that he also incorporates acrylic paints after the firing process, adding a contemporary look. His unusual style won him first place in ceramics at the fair last year. “The pieces look ancient and contemporary at the same time,” he says. “There’s an enigmatic quality to them. People look at them and they’re not really sure what the timeframe or the culture is. If I can make people think, I’m happy with that.”

Reflecting on being an artist, Foris says, “I can see all the steps that led me to where I am now, but none of them were conscious. You built on something you had done before. You keep building and keep building and you end up where you are.”