The Triumphant Tomato
Ten Years of Uniting the Fruits and the Vegetables
It’s officially summertime in Nashville, which means we can finally indulge in a slew of our most beloved pastimes. For starters, some of us can scratch off another successful Bonnaroo adventure, and relish the thought of languid pool days ahead. There will be lemonade stands to set up with the kiddos; outdoor concert options galore; and plenty of Sounds games to attend. But perhaps the most anticipated event of the season, at least for everyone dwelling on this side of the river, celebrates one of the South’s favorite warm-weather tokens: the heat loving tomato plant. That’s right, folks, it’s . . . Tomato Art Fest time!
Each year when August rolls around, the 5 Points area prepares for what has grown into one of the biggest, most adored and well-received festivals in the city. This year has a discernibly different buzz about it, though. Now don’t worry — the event’s founders, Meg and Bret MacFadyen, owners of the Art and Invention Gallery on Woodland Street, aren’t flipping the whole thing on its head. On the contrary: They are upping the ante, all in celebration of the festival’s 10th Anniversary. So let the birthday wishes resound!
For some, this may seem like no big deal. Yet for the MacFadyens and the many other people who have made the Tomato Art Fest what it is, having almost 10 years under their collective belt and still going strong really is quite the feat — especially for something that began simply as a one-off.
“It started out as just an art show,” recalls Meg MacFadyen. It was the summer of 2004, and she and her husband were brainstorming ideas on what to do about holding a show in their sheet-metal gallery in the dead of August, when the building would basically be a sweat-producing hot box. “I don’t care if the A/C runs 24 hours a day, it’s just never cool,” she explains. “I knew it was probably going to be a little uncomfortable, to put it lightly. So I thought, what can we do to make people want to come out and be miserable?”
From there, a series of organic incidents and conversations occurred, one in which a close friend who sold heirloom tomatoes playfully suggested she showcase tomato art. “I thought, ‘I should!’ Because who wouldn’t want to come out and see that?” Not to mention it was quite the serendipitous theme given that the dreaded heat was what they were trying to work around in the first place, and for anyone who knows anything about tomatoes, they thrive best when it’s really hot out. “Plus, to me, they’re one of the best parts of summer,” she adds.
Given that the festival’s origins are fairly whimsical in nature, MacFadyen insists that first show wasn’t a joke. “It was very tonguein- cheek, yes, but we just kind of did it as a lark. We had no idea what it would become,” she says. “And for some reason unbeknownst to me, about a thousand people showed up to my art opening. That’s when whatever alchemy or magic that is in this festival began.”
That first year, with no more publicity given to the tomato art show than was given their other art openings, the streets around 5 Points filled up with partygoers dressed to the nines in everything from tomato costumes to headto-toe red outfits. “This one guy came dressed as the ‘Tomato Queen’ and had an entire entourage of tomato court,” laughs MacFadyen. “It just somehow inspired people. The whole evening had such an air of revelry, and I don’t even remember who said it — maybe it was my guardian angel — but someone said in my ear, ‘I think I feel a festival coming on.”
“So I thought, what can we do to make people want to come out and be miserable?”—Meg MacFadyen
Some might say, “ . . . and the rest is history.” MacFadyen, especially, feels that after that first year, which only included the art show and a recipe contest, the festival really took on a life of its own, an accidental inspiration of sorts. “You know it was just this crazy phenomenon,” she says. “Even the motto, The Tomato — A Uniter, not a Divider: Bringing Together Fruits and Vegetables, came out of that first year, and when I heard it I thought, ‘Oh my god, that’s hilarious!’ And it just caught on, kind of like the festival did. And now, it’s really my political point of view: I’m with the Tomato Party.”
What was originally an unanticipated second event saw the addition of vendor booths, music and more contests. There were no road closures that early in the game because, “we still didn’t know what we were doing,” says MacFadyen. So people’s yards all along the streets of 5 Points became home to these new setups, and MacFadyen estimates something like 3,000 people were in attendance for that second go-round. Each year it continued to grow, doubling in size almost every year until the sixth, seventh and eighth years, during which attendance remained steady with an estimated 25,000 people.
“Then last year, we had this miraculous 83-degree day with low humidity and we had somewhere between 35,000 to 40,000 people come out,” says MacFadyen with the kind of awe that intimates even she couldn’t believe it. “The feeling in the streets was remarkable. People were just joyful and genuinely having a great time.”
Even with the indelible success that has turned the Tomato Art Fest into something truly special, MacFadyen insists she can’t take a single bit of credit for any of it. “We did the work, but anyone could have done what we did.” Instead, she always references the magic she believes lies within the festival itself. Magic that, she thinks, comes from the people of East Nashville. “It’s about art, sure. And it’s about tomatoes,” she says. “But really, it’s about the neighborhood. It’s about community. And what started out as about East Nashville originally, has grown to include the larger community of Nashville as a whole. I always feel like the Tomato Art Fest is kind of like a small-town event that just gets plopped down in the middle of a city. It just brings on that small-town sense of community.”
Looking back on East Nashville’s history over the past decade makes the triumphant trajectory of the Tomato Art Fest even more of a success story. Residents relatively new to the area don’t remember the not-so-glory days of the once less-than-desirable Nashville ‘hood; for MacFadyen and everyone at the Tomato Art Fest, it’s important to remember the blood, sweat and tears that went into making it the neighborhood it is today.
Bill Breyer, owner of the Alegria gift shop on Woodland, has been volunteering his services for the Tomato Art Fest since the first year. He agrees East Nashville really has come a long way. “We’ve always been seen as kind of the red-headed stepchild,” he says. “Now, we’re just as popular as can be. Everyone wants to be here, and especially for the Tomato Art Fest. It offers something for everyone and it just gives the rest of Nashville, and the world actually, a glimpse of how we do things here.”
How we do things includes an innate willingness to experiment and try out new ideas — attitudes that served to propel an art show into becoming a festival in the first place. “The people that live in this neighborhood really care about this neighborhood. And they really care to see it thrive,” says MacFadyen. “There’s this spirit of, ‘Let’s throw down and make this happen!’”
It’s that spirit that kept her gallery in business during its first few years back in the early 2000s. With so few retail businesses located in East Nashville at the time neighborhood folks really rallied around, shopping locally and keeping her and her fellow small-shop comrades afloat. “I am forever grateful for that,” says MacFadyen.
Her gift, in turn, continues to be the neighborhood-uniting Tomato Art Fest. “For us, it’s a lot about reaching out and helping to bring that community of people together. Sometimes just the simple, goofy things are really some of the most wonderful things. It’s the little pleasures that are the most rewarding. I think the Tomato Art Fest just serves to remind people of that.”
The most rewarding part of the experience for MacFadyen continues to be that moment, each year, when the morning parade circles its way back into 5 Points, with every Tomatoadorned celebrant looking absolutely gleeful as they march along. “The hundreds and hundreds of people that have spent time making a costume, laughing, pulling their kids in wagons,” says MacFadyen, “I just burst into tears every time! I can’t help it. It just fills my heart so much for people to come out and have fun like that. It’s the best feeling.”
That feeling is exactly why MacFadyen maintains that each Tomato Art Fest remains a free event. “It’s very geared toward participation. And people playing and having fun with their neighbors,” she says. “I’m always happy to accept donations,” she hints, “but keeping admission free and keeping it about the community is what it’s all about.”
“You can live right next door to someone and never see them or talk to them, never even really know their name. You have to make an effort.”
Since this year marks the 10-year milestone, MacFadyen and company will have a bevy of festival favorites planned, like the Nashville Farmer’s Market recipe contest, Nuvo Burrito’s wet-burrito competition, the best redhead competition, bobbing for tomatoes, a cornhole tournament, 3 Crow’s best Bloody Mary competition, Bill Breyer’s Most Beautiful Tomato Contest and The Hip Zipper owner Trisha Brantley’s fashion show, just to name a few.
The MacFaydens are planning for the festival to grow even larger. “We’re adding more booths; we’re bringing back the ‘King and Queen’ event — which hopefully will be a big deal,” says MacFadyen.” It’s Miss America gone East Nashville, but we’re just making it as big and as grand as we can. And of course, we’re going to spring a few surprises on you. Plus, I’m always hoping that Oprah will come, or the CBS Sunday Morning show. I mean, this would be perfect for that. So if anyone has any connections, please make them come!”
Maybe this will also be the year that the Tomato Art Fest sees its first wedding. “I’ve had several people tell me they met their significant other at Tomato Art Fest. So I’m just waiting for someone to get married here,” says MacFadyen. “I am an ordained minister . . . just saying. The 10-year anniversary would be a good time to make that happen. You can get married on the main stage.”
Regardless of what celebrity may or may not show up or what couple announces their love to the world, MacFadyen knows the impact of the festival goes much deeper than that. “It has brought people together again,” she says. “You can live right next door to someone and never see them or talk to them, never even really know their name. You have to make an effort. If people aren’t going to go to bars or to church or to this or that, there are certain things set up, like the Tomato Art Fest, that give you instant community. I think overall, people just want to play and have fun, and they can do that here. When you’re here, that feeling in the streets . . . if you could bottle it and feel that way every day it would truly be the way to live.”
This year’s long-awaited 10-year anniversary celebration is slated for Aug. 10, with the festivities in 5 Points kicking off at 10 a.m. and lasting until 10 p.m. Check www.tomatoartfest. com for daily updates about contests, activities, etc., or for more information on participating in the event as a vendor, volunteer or competitor. Until then, Happy Birthday, Tomato Art Fest!