Painting the East Side Red

Neighborhood’s creative juices fuel Tomato Art Fest

Bret and Meg MacFadyen
Photo by Stacie Huckeba
Bret and Meg MacFadyen Photo by Stacie Huckeba

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From our July/Aug 2012 edition

This time of year, as the homegrown Tennessee tomato emits her siren song, drawing locals to her like a June bug to a back porch light, planning for East Nashville’s 2012 Tomato Art Fest is in high gear. 

Tomato art entries are being accepted at festival headquarters, Meg and Bret MacFadyen’s Art and Invention Gallery, and event organizers are busy putting together a full slate of events for the neighborhood’s biggest, most imaginative festival. The Tomato Fest works so well, Meg says, because “the kind of people who live here are really willing to play,” lending a freewheeling spirit to the festival that makes it such a draw not just for neighbors but also those from across the river and beyond.

By now, most East Nashvillians know how the Tomato Art Fest grew from one-off art show to a street festival attended annually by 20,000 people. But neighborhood residents may not know quite how organic that evolution was.

In 2004, the MacFadyens were searching for inspiration amidst the dog days of summer, contemplating a new art show for August. The idea for a tomato-themed exhibition came together among Meg, her friend and heirloom tomato grower Diane Gross, and another friend and gallery patron Ann Edgerton. 

Edgerton brought the MacFadyens a clipping about a festival in California that featured wine and tomato pairings, as well as tomato art. Meg passed it along to Gross, and the three women, with the help of Bret, began cooking up the idea for their own art show paying homage to Tennessee’s “official fruit,” as designated by the state legislature in 2003.

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Little did they know that 1,000 eager arts patrons would show up — quite a few of them in costume — to celebrate tomato art at that first event. “We had no intention of it being anything but a one-time art show,” Meg says, but “it turned into a big party.”

Soon, neighbors began asking what they could do to take the art show to the next level and make it a bona-fide festival. For the first few years, events were held on the Art and Invention property, but it soon grew too big to be contained, spilling into the streets of Five Points and beyond.

The second-line parade, which was initiated after many New Orleans residents relocated to Nashville following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is now the popular kickoff to the festival. 

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“Anybody can take ownership of an idea and run with it,” Bret says, explaining how some of the day’s events got started and continue still. The various goofy contests, such as the wet burrito contest, where contestants eat a burrito while being sprayed with a water hose, were all dreamed up by neighbors and small business owners. 

Even some of the musicians, such as East Nashville’s favorite agnostic hymnist, Todd Snider, approached the organizers about performing at this year’s fest. Meg’s reaction? “Wow!” And so Snider’s alter ego Elmo Buzz and his band the Eastside Bulldogs, which includes Elizabeth Cook and Tim Carroll, will close out the festival on Saturday night.  

Meg and Bret insist they never sat down and brainstormed ideas to design a festival. “We’re like the clearinghouse; the train station where ideas come in and out,” she explains. 

The MacFadyens’ Art and Invention Gallery is a bit like a train depot, with customers, artists, friends, and neighbors coming and going during both official and unofficial business hours. 

Art and Invention is part gallery and part workshop, a place to showcase artwork and a space for these two working artists to spend time on their own projects. 

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This is not a gallery with a dozen paintings on the wall and a few sculptures on pedestals that would require a second mortgage to afford. For sale here are whimsical, functional and affordable pieces of art and jewelry, a good bit of it made by East Nashville artists. 

The space embodies the funky, laid-back vibe of the neighborhood. During a recent visit, Meg, wearing paint-splattered overalls, a T-shirt, baseball cap and a beaded crystal necklace, flits between customers and chats easily with them while ringing up purchases. 

Bret, in a white T-shirt, jean shorts, and a wristwatch, takes a slightly more behind-the-scenes approach. He spends most of his days in the vast Invention laboratory at the back of the building known as Garage Mahal, surrounded by wood, metal, and all types of materials used in his design/build business. 

Not one to clamor for credit, Bret talks about some of his well-known projects when nudged. In the immediate vicinity, he designed the Five Points Collaborative modular buildings next door and the I Dream of Weenie hut, which the MacFadyens owned before selling it to a new owner. Bret also designed the interior space of the Provence restaurant at the downtown library, and has a hand in the new development currently under construction at Fatherland and 11th streets, which will become storefronts for new small businesses, the lifeblood of the neighborhood. 

“People are the driving force [of East Nashville],” he says. “There’s so much good-will energy and a critical mass of creativity here, it’s unbelievable.” 

The shops, restaurants and other small businesses run by these creative people are the reason that people are choosing to live in and visit East Nashville. “There’s no big economic juggernaut” drawing people here, he notes. Indeed, there are no big corporate headquarters in the neighborhood, no hospital, no mall, no pre-packaged family entertainment destination. 

“People make their own fun here,” Meg says. 

With East Nashville restaurants like Mas Tacos Por Favor and Mitchell’s Deli getting recent national media attention, Bret says, “This seems to be a pivotal year for East Nashville.”  

When the MacFadyens, who lived in the Belmont area, first purchased the big sheet metal building at 1106 Woodland St. in 2000, they weren’t quite sure what to expect of the neighborhood. As post-tornado pioneers, they were here before the Slow Bar began its brief run of glory and before Margot Café opened its doors. They have watched the neighborhood grow at an almost unfathomable rate over the last dozen years.

“When we first started out here, there was nothing but crickets outside,” Bret recalls. There were also the occasional loiterers and prostitutes not far from their doorstep.

“Then we started seeing strollers,” Bret says. More strollers followed as young families began gravitating toward the neighborhood, rehabbing the beautiful old houses. With all the families here now, “it just gets better and better,” he adds. 

Meg and Bret, who met in East Nashville on the set of the 1991 film Ernest Scared Stupid, hardly recognize the Five Points area now. Back then, he was helping build large-scale sets, like transforming the abandoned building that would be the future home of Margot Café into a lawyer’s office, and she was painting scenery. 

The skills gained while working on movie sets have helped the MacFadyens with their ability to serve as “clearinghouse” and host to the sauciest festival in town. “We know how to put things together in a red-hot hurry,” Meg says. Which is handy, since all the details for the Tomato Art Fest don’t come together until the eleventh hour. 

This year, like last, the MacFadyens are relying on professional event planner Jack Davis to oversee the logistics of the festival. They are particularly excited about having the funds and the manpower to pick up all the trash left behind. 

Then on Sunday, Aug. 12, after all the hubbub has died down, festival fairy godmother Meg MacFadyen may be able kick back with her favorite food, a luscious bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. “There’s nothing like a BLT — period,” she says. 

The same could be said of East Nashville’s Tomato Art Fest: There’s nothing like it. Period. 

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