Nashville, Tenn., gallery owner Meg MacFadyen thinks summertime and tomatoes are such perfect soul mates she created an entire festival in their tribute. The former Charlotte resident and South Meck high school alum is the founder and head tomato behind the wildly popular annual Tomato Art Fest.
Her tomato-inspired art show attracted about 1,000 people in 2004, its first year. Last year, the quirky activity-packed giant block party was enjoyed by upwards of 35,000 revelers. Southern Living magazine calls it, “One of the five things you need to know in the South now.”
MacFadyen and her husband, Bret, sowed seeds for the festival from their eclectic art gallery/boutique, Art & Invention Gallery.
“It was summer and our gallery is a challenge to keep cool,” said MacFadyen. “I knew we wanted to do an art show and thought tomatoes love the heat, and they are one of the best things about summer. Why not feature tomato-inspired artwork and celebrate outdoors around the gallery?”
Capturing people’s imagination
Few summertime joys in the South exceed savoring a prized homegrown tomato.
For the tomato lover, there’s no greater pleasure than a sandwich made from nothing more than thick slice of a just-picked ‘mater, still warm from the sun, resting in between two slices of mayonnaise-slathered (Duke’s, of course) white bread.
MacFadyen looked to capture those emotional ties with her idea.
“Somehow the first show really captured people’s imagination,” MacFadyen said. “We had a recipe contest, people wore costumes and one of our local food writers told me at the time, ‘Meg, it feels like a festival coming on.’ The following year we did it again, got vendors and other businesses to join in and it’s just kept evolving.”
MacFadyen said that after Hurricane Katrina, Nashville saw a large influx of New Orleans residents. As a nod to them, the Tomato Art Fest began a second line-style parade with a tomato-oriented theme that included floats, costumes and music. It has proved to be one of the most popular attractions of the festival with hundreds joining in each year.
Tomato Art Fest takes over more than seven square blocks of east Nashville with concerts, food trucks, live art, a float-filled parade, king and queen contest, a 5k, tomato art exhibits, a KidFest, beautiful tomato contest, recipe contest, bobbing for tomatoes, tomato toss, a giant ice cream sundae extravaganza – and a ’mater mania that satisfies even the most die-hard tomato lovers.
More than 200 businesses and vendors participate in the festival; part of the event proceeds are returned to the community in support of a local park.
“Over the years people approached me with fun ideas and suggested adding new elements, said MacFadyen, “I’d say, ‘That’s a great idea, why don’t you be in charge of that.’ There really is something for everyone. It’s a great excuse for adults to play like they’re kids.”
Charlotte visual artist Duy Huynh has been showing at MacFadyen’s East Nashville gallery for the past 10 years. He’s created special works for the festival almost every year since its inception.
“I usually do at least one tomato-inspired piece and another that is influenced by fruits and vegetables,” said Huynh, whose paintings have a surreal, dream-like quality to them. “It’s ironic that Meg’s parents live in Charlotte and my parents live in Nashville, so we often see each other when visiting our folks. The festival is great for people watching, enjoying the different foods, and great music.”
While the festival is officially two days – a Friday and Saturday – many area restaurants, galleries and retail businesses hold promotions and tomato-themed events in a run up a week or more in advance of the festival.
“I love the entire event of course,” said MacFadyen. “My personal favorite is the parade. Everyone can join in, people prepare for weeks in advance decorating floats, making crazy costumes. It brings tears to my eyes. Another favorite is all the children centered events we have. We have everything from tomato fairies to a redhead competition, even dog fashion. It is a family friendly fun festival where people are invited to play in the streets.”