BEMIDJI -- There's almost always something new to see at Bemidji's annual Art in the Park festival, and this year's 52nd annual event is no exception.
In addition to some big changes in the venue itself, shoppers will be surprised to see what Joe and Pam Manthei of Mora, Minn., have to offer in their Fiskur Leather booth. "Fiskur" is the Icelandic word for fish, and the Mantheis have a variety of products made from tanned fish skin. They will be at Art in the Park in Bemidji for the first time.
"No matter where we've gone in Minnesota people all say you should go to Bemidji with this," Joe said in a phone interview from Michigan's Upper Peninsula while preparing for one of the many festivals on this summer's schedule. "They say 'Bemidji is my best show. We always do well at Bemidji. You'll do well in Bemidji.'"
Fiskur Leather will be one of about 100 vendors at this year's festival, which runs from from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, July 20, and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, July 21. Because of the Carnegie Library renovation project, fewer spaces are available for vendors at Library Park, so the sponsoring Watermark Art Center has had to make some changes for this year.
In addition to Library Park, vendors will be located across Bemidji Avenue in the green space south of the Watermark. Food vendors will be stationed in the Watermark parking lot, and picnic tables will be placed in the green space north of the parking lot. Children's art activities will be held indoors in the art center's education room.
The juried fine arts and craft fair has been a summer staple since 1967. This year’s vendors will be selling everything from wood and ceramics to clothing and jewelry. There will also be photography, metalworking, greeting cards, homemade preserves, food, candles and soaps.
Lori Forshee-Donnay, executive director of the Watermark, said Fiskur Leather is an example of the variety of artists who are attracted to the Bemidji show. Another new booth for this year will feature Aimee Bouchard, an artist, illustrator and designer from Walker. Others include Tom Kulju from Longville, who does flint knapping, and potter Lance Hanfler from Baxter, who has been a fixture at Art in the Park for more than 40 years.
"We get people from all over to do this show," Forshee-Donnay said. "They're kind of making their circuit. We also have some local artists who do it, because it's close and an easy trip."
For Joe and Pam Manthei, and many of the other artists, the trip to Bemidji is part of a season-long itinerary. The Mantheis arrive here this week after doing shows in both lower and upper Michigan. Their booth won first place in the leather category at last weekend's West Shore Art Fair in Ludington, Mich., and Joe won first place two weeks ago at Brainerd's Art in the Park festival for an apron that he created. They sell skins to other artists, but the most popular items are coin purses, wallets and handbags.
Both Pam and Joe said their booth spawns many questions about fish leather.
"Probably the biggest thing that we do is educate," Pam said. "Many people have never heard of fish leather. They have lots of questions about it. They like to touch it, they like to smell it. So we spend a great deal of our time just enlightening people with it. But the quality of the product leads to sales. Because it's very strong and it's very beautiful."
The couple got into fish leather art in 2011 after taking a vacation to Iceland. Fiskur Leather imports tanned fish leather from a specific tannery in Iceland. Fish leather is an example of how a by-product of food production can be utilized. The raw material is fish skin from fish caught at sea or farmed for food. None of the hides come from an animal bred for its skin. The hot water used for coloration and tanning is from geothermal sources. Fish leather is made by tanning skin from salmon, cod, perch and wolfish. Recently the Mantheis received their first shipment of tanned tilapia from their Icelandic supplier.
"(People) have a hard time wrapping their brain around the concept of tanning fish skin," Jo e said. "The same thing happened to us when we first ran into it. It's like, fish leather? This is really kind of strange. But then you touch it and feel it and smell it, and it's like, OK. Sometimes people ask us if it's cow leather that's been embossed to look like scales on the leather. No, it really is fish skin, it really is tanned."