Bret & Meg MacFadyen being interviewed by Black Diamond at the 2018 Tomato Art Fest —Photo: Chuck Allen

Citizens, Kind

For Meg and Bret MacFadyen, business was always personal

If you know me, you know
I hate being the center of attention.”
 —Meg MacFadyen, May 31, 2019

It’s a sunny, late afternoon in Five Points, around dinnertime on the last day of May. A small but very colorful crowd gathers in the walkway along the shops at the Idea Hatchery, queuing quietly with signs, tomato festooned hats, and giggles. They’re waiting for Meg MacFadyen, whom they want to celebrate in her most natural habitat one more time. It was almost impossible to keep this secret and spread it properly, but they pulled it off. The crowd keeps increasing in number, and they are soon joined by Mayor David Briley, ready to issue a proclamation declaring Meg and her husband Bret MacFadyen as Very Important Persons. As people construct a greeting area, Meg is behind the counter at the Art and Invention Gallery wearing her usual overalls and a smile, helping yet another customer after business hours.

When Bret and Meg MacFadyen purchased the building and property at 1108 Woodland St. in May 2000, Five Points was hardly a bustling center of economic opportunity. There were a few veteran businesses scattered along the row of commercial buildings, but local patrons tried to park as close as possible and then hurried into the front door to do their business. It would be a few months before Shirley’s across the street would become The Slow Bar and the concept of Five Points as a “destination” would begin to blossom.

What Meg and Bret envisioned as a workshop and warehouse for fabricating movie and video sets soon became an art gallery and neighborhood nexus where your freak flag was not only welcome, but encouraged. Four years later, Meg got an idea for a summertime Tomato Art Show that quickly turned into an annual festival. Just as tomato plants have to be nurtured in a special bed before transplanting, Bret applied the same principle to small businesses in 2011 and peeled off a piece of the Woodland property to create the Idea Hatchery.

It is almost half past six and the crowd is murmur-buzzing about the delay. Meg is finally dragged out of the Art and Invention Gallery into the sunlight as hundreds of people cheer for her. Although Bret is not present, the celebration and appreciation is for him too. There are tears and many, many hugs, along with Mardi Gras beads that the celebrants heap around Megs’ neck.

For those who have spent many days (and nights) walking around the Art and Invention Gallery in the years since its beginning, it was jarring to learn about the sale of both that property and the adjacent Idea Hatchery. The gallery was as familiar as a daily commute to many, a must-see every August to some, and for many others, the solution to a forgotten birthday/anniversary scramble. When the announcement of the sale and the MacFadyens’ retirement was made public on April 30, a retail-enhanced wake began as Meg and Bret slowly disassembled, sold, and then gave away pieces of the shop and gallery.

Despite this swift dissipation, the memories made for the neighborhood by Meg and Bret MacFadyen will persist long after the gallery’s closing. Here is an only partial list:

When New Orleans native and East Side neighborhood fixture Melissa Duke Mooney passed away suddenly in 2009 she was honored with a Big Easy-style second line parade. The day before, Meg closed her gallery to the public and provided Melissa’s Daisy Girl Scout troop with umbrellas to decorate for the parade while she lovingly fired up the glue guns, filled paint jars, and hugged mommies while the girls prepared their memorials.

While we’re at it, glue guns. Have you ever had one in your home? Unless you are extremely rugged they can function as actual murder weapons. The Gallery had up to a half dozen going at a time on days when the MacFadyens opened up their work areas to children and adults alike to make Valentines, ornaments, or anything you can dream up that will leave an surging glitter vortex in a room. Did they do it for profit? Are you kidding?

Every time you took a peek behind the doors in the garage before it was converted to find that Bret was building some manifestation of a child’s imagination, to order. Neither he nor Meg ever told you about it, or the sometimes famous clients who had contracted them; they were just putting the space to its best use at the time.

The numerous occasions when disasters struck and the MacFadyens opened their space after hours for the storage of relief supplies.

The time you or your friend called Meg up (because everybody knows her) and asked her to throw a party, or perform a wedding, or to ask her to utilize her homeopathic skills to help you figure out what THAT rash was, or to just send good thoughts. Or any of those times that you were drawn to the gallery in times of loss and left felling lighter.

After an almost endless parade of friends (no one is just a customer at the Art and Invention Gallery) placing strands of beads on the petite Meg, her tiny head is peaking out over the top of a beaded rainbow. Longtime neighbor Kimberly Clo leads the crowd in an appreciation. More hugs are distributed and the crowd dances along to “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge and a soundtrack that says, “We are HERE for this!”

Bret and Meg were both art majors who met while building sets for the 1991 movie, Ernest Scared Stupid. They continued to build in every step of their marriage, building not just for them but for their community. With the opening of the Idea Hatchery in 2011, they took that devotion to building into a new arena. As landlords AND neighbors, the MacFadyens provided small retail units with shared resources and affordable rent to aspiring business owners. The opening played well, with much excitement and several tenants out of the gate, but the row was vandalized and burgled within weeks in the still-transitional neighborhood. Because the Idea Hatchery operated like a family businesses, such affronts to the property felt personal, and Bret responded with around-the-clock work, welding and sculpting rebar and bells on the gates that created both an art project and a clear statement that surrender to the forces of crime and chaos were not an option in his neighborhood.

Tanya Coe, recording artist and proprietress of Goodbuy Girls, explains the mutual leap of faith between the Idea Hatchery owners and tenants was a mutual trust exercise writ large.

“I was 23 when I started Goodbuy Girls with my best friend,” Coe says. “Our first location was by Sweet 16th Bakery and was nothing short of a hole in the wall, but we made the best of it, doing pop ups around town. Just as we were thinking about throwing in the towel, Bil Breyer of Alegria Nashville, who was our neighbor at the time, told us about a new retail space being built in Five Points. I don’t know why they [Bret and Meg] took a chance on us, but they did and we’ve ended up being one of two shops here since the beginning.

“The platform that Bret and Meg created for us was not just about cheap rent, it was a support system. I remember having a conversation with Bret early on … I was scared because I was going through a serious breakup, traumatic family stuff, had just signed a lease on my very first apartment, had to buy a new computer and a new car, and we had this new higher rent on the store. It seemed like everything was hitting at the same time, and I was overwhelmed. … He said ‘Tanya, you’re a smart girl, you have an accounting degree and you’re creative and resourceful, get what you need to do the things that you need/want to do and the money will come.’ That pep talk meant the world to me and little did I know that it was the first of many encouraging talks with Bret.”

That devotion to friendship, trust, and mutual support among neighbors is just one many giant footprints the MacFadyens leave behind. Along with a thriving and continuing business incubator, a world class summer festival, and a stronger community, the countless acts of personal kindness or bits of good advice dispensed freely will continue to resonate.

The sun is setting, and the revelers are making their ways into the rest of the weekend, with a few stragglers staying behind to pick up the party remains and give a hand to Meg with moving items out of the gallery. For every one of these neighbors and friends, no official proclamation was needed; in their hearts and minds, the title of Very Important Person was conferred upon Meg and Bret MacFadyen long before the sun set on the last day of the Art and Invention Gallery.