"The best part of the first Tomato Art Fest was throwing rotten tomatoes at the torn down market at Fatherland and 11th. Throwing the tomatoes wasn’t mean-spirited. We were just a group of people from the neighborhood celebrating the end of a well-known drug deal location, but it really put a pin in that moment when everyone from the neighborhood came together and got to know each other.”
— Dana Delworth
Dana Delworth is recalling past Tomato Art Fests while sitting in the living room of her Inglewood home. Dubbed “Squalor Holler,” the house is a vibrant reflection of the Delworth family’s personalities, filled with Pee-wee’s Playhouse-type objects d’art, kitschy Nashville relics, and a healthy serving of tomato art from past festivals.
Delworth, along with her husband John and their daughters Kate and Jane, have been a ubiquitous presence at the Tomato Art Festival since its inception. Over the past 14 years, Dana has run the music stage multiple times, hosted the Faux Paw Fashion Show contest, judged the haiku contest, participated in the fashion show with her daughters, and even portrayed Tomato Festival co-founder Meg MacFadyen in the 2013 docu-comedy-psych-out-musical East Nashville Tonight.
“I’m really lucky that Meg thought I could do anything she asked me to do, even impersonate a woman who is half my height,” Delworth says. “And god knows she’s asked me to do some crazy things.”
Delworth’s love for the Tomato Art Fest and East Nashville runs much deeper than fun memories of good times. Her love and boosterism for music, art, community, and the unusual makes her the quintessential East Side gal. A native Nashvillian, Delworth grew up in the Donelson-Hermitage area and graduated from McGavock High School.
“My first real job in high school was at Opryland, standing next to the Tennessee River Boys in a cheerleading uniform, holding 45s in one hand and LPs in the other during their whole show,” Delworth says. “I went to UT Knoxville, got married, and lived in Green Hills. That was not a good fit. After my divorce, I met John and we moved to East Nashville in 1996, specifically because we planned to have kids. We wanted them to grow up in this neighborhood, which was the exact opposite of what everyone else was doing at the time.”
The path to Delworth’s involvement with the Tomato Art Festival began in 2000 when Meg and Bret MacFadyen opened Art & Invention Gallery on Woodland Street.
“There wasn’t much going on, so when a new business opened it was a big deal,” Delworth says. “We got to know Meg and she’s got those little sparkly eyes that make you want to do anything for her.
“We still lived in Lockeland Springs when Tomato Art Fest started. One day Meg said, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if everyone painted my favorite thing to eat, tomatoes? It’s a uniter not a divider.’ It all grew from there.”
In 2004, Delworth remembers, the first fest consisted of Art & Invention’s tomato art show and four or five other activities. A local bar put a Bloody Mary on special, and the Top O’ Woodland (now Urban Cowboy) bed and breakfast served tomato pie.
“Tommy Womack played on the back of a flatbed truck with just an amp,” she says, “and it was all over by 5 o’clock in the afternoon. It was just a sweet little blip that Meg thought into existence.”
Even though the first Tomato Fest was small in size, Delworth notes the event was a turning point for a period that began six years earlier, when the skies darkened over East Nashville and an F3 tornado came roaring down Woodland Street.
“The first Tomato Fest was the fulfillment of the post-tornado period,” Delworth says. “The tornado gave us emotional ownership of our neighborhood. After the tornado, when you saw everything could bloom like that, you wanted more and you thought the sky was the limit. If we hadn’t had the tornado, we wouldn’t have come out of our front doors and engaged with each other. And Meg and Bret wouldn’t have said, ‘Let’s have a festival.’”
Tomato Art Fest provided a template for the “new” East Nashville, Delworth says: a place people could not only reinvent themselves and renovate houses but work together to transform a neighborhood.
“East Nashville practically invites you to throw your own hoopla,” Delworth says. “Meg is the original ‘let’s put on a show’ person over here. If this sweet little fairy of a woman can pull a festival devoted to worshiping a piece of food out of her tuches, anything can happen. Tomato Fest made everyone around her aware that you could make your own happening out of thin air, with nothing but your enthusiasm and a few funny friends.”