It was while she was waiting tables that Chicagoan Jeanmarie Petro first looked at a bottle cap and saw a canvas. She and a friend, Barbara Tinger, started decorating the little lids as a hobby and then others took notice. Necklaces, rings and pins fashioned with glitter and tiny images were earning enthusiastic responses at art fairs, and in 2002 Petro and Tinger started their own company, Weener Ware.

During Forest Park’s second annual Arts Fest last weekend, Weener Ware shared Madison Street with more than 50 artists from the region hoping to cash in on a showcase that is already gaining ground. Petro, whose nickname does double-duty as the company moniker, said she learned of the Arts Fest from other artists. The inaugural event got mixed reviews from people she talked with, said Petro, but after spending a weekend peddling her wares here she said the Arts Fest “was worthwhile.”

“You know, you have to try something once or twice to figure out if it’s for you,” Petro said of growing her business.

When organizers launched the Forest Park Arts Fest in 2007, everyone crossed their fingers that this traditionally blue-collar town would open its wallet and give visiting artists an incentive to return. That appears to be happening, according to Roz Long, who produces this juried art show and does marketing for regional artists through her company, RGL Marketing for the Arts. Long estimated that at least 30 percent of last year’s artists returned for the 2008 show, and overall the quality of the artists who applied has improved. Such gains typically take several years, said Long.

“The artists that are not coming back, it’s due to the economy and gas prices,” Long said. “We had more out-of-state artists last year.”

John Stillmunks has a gallery and studio in Des Moines, Iowa, where he sells his colorful paintings. It was during a show in Geneva, Wis., that he heard of the Forest Park Arts Fest and on Sunday said he wouldn’t hesitate to put next year’s event on his calendar. The crowd was a mix, he said, with yuppies and young families, but most importantly, people were buying.

“It’s an amazingly art savvy crowd,” Stillmunks said. “They ask interesting questions. They’re not looking for something to match the couch.”

The Forest Park Arts Fest is a free event held in an open-air environment, which makes it difficult to track how many people actually attend. Volunteers for the Chamber of Commerce and Development were distributing programs, but not everyone takes one. As for tracking sales figures, Long said that too, is a challenge so the best barometers are the quality of the artwork and surveyed responses taken afterward.

“This was a compliment to our first year,” Long said.