130 artists will have their work on display at the 21st annual art celebration and competition this weekend.

COURTESY: ART IN THE PEARL - Organizers expect up to 100,000 visitors in the North Park Blocks area for the 21st annual Art in the Pearl event, which features 130 artists and their work.
Every Labor Day weekend for the past 21 years, thousands have gathered at Northwest Portland's North Park Blocks to champion independent artists.

This year's Art in the Pearl event is no different, as organizers expect a whopping 100,000 people to line the sidewalks to gawk at, or purchase, any of the original artwork created by the 130 artists selected to participate.

Art in the Pearl is no joke — it's competitive. Close to 1,000 artists from all over the United States — and some from Canada, too — send in hopeful applications to participate.

"The thing we try to focus on is the artists. It's a big deal for some, being such a highly competitive show. A lot of these artists have applied for many, many years," says organizer Kelli MacConnell.

Getting into the show is only part of the competitive nature of the event. Once they're in, a group of "about five" jurors, made up of gallery owners, artists, past art show directors and others in the art world, will score the artists on their artistic excellence in originality, design, technical proficiency and craftsmanship.

Competition aside, though, it's about connecting event-goers to the artist.

"We have galleries like most cities do, but to have the ability to have people meet the artists and actually speak with the artist about their work and have this setup where they can see the artist making their work … I think that's really important for people to see," MacConnell says.

There are all types of artists participating in the event — including two duos who each won Best of Show last year, and were invited back to Art in the Pearl this weekend to show their work:

Nile and Michelle Fahey (Booth No. SO52)

Imagine being confined to an art studio, with only the sound of your sibling hammering a sheet of metal.

Sound annoying?

Well, such is the reality for a brother-sister pair of metalsmiths in their mid-30s who are making the Bronze Age cool again with their funky, metal-forged "vessels" — or beautifully crafted vases and bowls.

Living now on Vashon Island, Washington, the Faheys had an international upbringing — reflected in some of their pieces that have something of a nautical aesthetic. COURTESY: THE FAHEYS - Nile and Michelle Fahey won Best of Show in 2016, and are returning to Art in the Pearl this year. Think of the crashing waves along the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, and in a village somewhere nearby, centuries ago, metalsmiths hammering away at a product.

The Faheys spent time in Ireland; their mother immigrated from Galway, Ireland, and father from Cairo, Egypt.

"We grew up overseas, so a lot of the old-school crafting techniques really influence our work," Nile says.

He recalls a time that he and his sister were wandering through a market in Egypt, where a craftsman was displaying a box made out of pearl and camel bones.

"He was holding a lighter next to his work — he said, this is how you check that it's real, because plastic will melt, but bone doesn't melt," Nile says. "All these craftsman were showing people how to determine good work and bad work so that it could last. We do the same thing at our booth."

COURTESY: THE FAHEYS - Nile and Michelle Fahey use basic metal and hammer work to make these 'vessels.'

Nile, who had an inexplicable impulse to start hitting things with a hammer from the age of 6, taught his sister the craft. They have been working on the collection they'll have at Art in the Pearl for the past seven years. They hammer one flat sheet of metal into sculptural forms, using no machines and only simple hand tools.

"We don't use any machines, or molds, or casting — it's just the old-style hammer work," Nile says. "A lot of times people think you need a special tool or some type of machine to do something, and the old craftsmen like my uncles from Ireland, they could make anything with anything — or with nothing. They just saw what they had, and figured out how to make something beautiful with it."

Hetty and Norman Metzger (Booth No. N105)

The Metzgers, a husband and wife in their 60s, have work that's much less circular than the Faheys. In fact, quite the opposite — it's all about geometric paper boxes that come together in big, colorful abstract patterns.

COURTESY: COURTESY: HETTY AND NORMAN METZGER - Hetty and Norman Metzger also won Best of Show in 2016, returning this year. Their unique geometric, abstract artwork features hundreds of paper boxes and bright colors. Seeing their beautiful work becomes more shocking when one learns that neither of the Metzgers have any classic training in art whatsoever. Now living in a suburb of Austin, Texas, and previously spending most of their lives in central Pennsylvania, Hetty was a speech pathologist and Norman retired from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare after working in the field for 34 and a half years.

The boxes were just something that they decided to start doing in retirement. And they make lots and lots and lots of them. They've spent countless hours making little boxes for their art displays — while listening to NPR in their studio in what's become a ritual.

She's better at picking colors while Norman helps come up with concepts for designs. They don't always agree, but there are never arguments about what it's going to look like.

"Whoever came up with the idea for the piece, or the concept for the piece, has the final say for what's going to go into the piece," Norman says.

COURTESY: ART IN THE PEARL - Hetty and Norman Metzger won best of show in 2016.

They don't know of anyone else making anything similar to their artwork. Their pieces range in size, but a "popular piece" they say, might have up to 675 boxes in it, and could take 80 hours to assemble — about six to eight weeks of work.

In other words, they're certainly keeping busy, even post-retirement.

"I'm kind of hooked now, but I complain I don't have time to fish or golf anymore. So it's work, but it's fun work," Norman says.

Check out Art in the Pearl this weekend, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 2-3 and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday, Sept. 4, at the Northwest Park Blocks between Northwest Davis Street and Flanders at Northwest Eighth Avenue. For more info:

Lyndsey Hewitt
Reporter, Portland Tribune
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