Tomato Art Fest ripens with popularity

Thursday, August 6, 2009 at 12:00am
Tomato-themed works of art, like this painting, "Tomato Terror," are just one aspect of the Tomato Art Festival in East Nashville's Five Points.

In August 2005, East Nashville held it first official Tomato Art Festival, with about 3,000 curious folk wandering about Five Points to peek at a handful of vendor booths and check out a band or two.

That year, TAF was highlighted by a bunch of crazies hurling handfuls of the overly ripe lycopene-rich fruit at the cinderblock building from which East End Market previously peddled potato chips and toilet paper. The event’s kick-off parade comprised a rag-tag assembly of participants simply strolling Woodland Street as if on some odd tomato hunt.

This Saturday, up to 15,000 people from across the country will descend on the east side’s Five Points for the Sixth Annual Tomato Art Festival, now a nationally respected event with about 75 vendors, 13 musical acts and enough tomato-oriented art, clothing and food to impress even those hard-core vegetarians who know the world produced 125 million tons of the delicious edible in 2008.

Holy, tomato. How far the fest has come in five brief years.

“It’s taken on a life of its own,” said Meg MacFadyen, the coordinator of the event from its start in 2004 as a simple art show with pieces highlighted by, yes, tomatoes.

Like a massive tomato that is twice as large as its counterparts in the field, TAF has ripened almost wildly. For example, the 2009 version of the red fruit-themed event will have about 75 vendors, with some of those occupying multiple spaces in what should be roughly 90 booths. In comparison, last August’s festival featured about 40 booths.

“We have more than doubled the food vendors we’ve had [in the past],” said Laura Creekmore, who coordinates the vendor effort.

Creekmore said the collection of vendor booths will be called the “Tomato Bazaar,” perhaps an apropos moniker given the number of attendees who, if they don’t fully embrace the bizarre, at least lean toward the odd and quirky. The majority of the vendor booths will focus on eateries, farmers, clothing/jewelry, non-profits, service businesses, crafts/arts and pets.

“We’re heavy on East Nashville businesses and organizations,” Creekmore said.

Another change from last year’s event is that this edition of TAF will offer nine pre-festival activities, the collective participation and significance of which could rival that of Saturday itself.

Some of the pre-events activities — such as the Children’s Art Competition and Friends of Fanny at the Whistle Stop Stage — are well suited for the little tomatoes among us. Others — including the Tomato Art Preview Party and the Bloody Mary Competition — will be better suited for the older crowd.

As has become a tradition, music will be a key theme of this weekend’s festival, the motto of which is cleverly phrased: “ The Tomato. A Uniter. Not a Divider. Bringing together fruits and vegetables.”

Eric Jans, a long-time east side resident, helped coordinate this Saturday’s live music line-up, which includes 13 artists on one main stage. For the first time, festival organizers fielded submissions from music acts. Jans and his team culled through 100 submissions for the 2009 celebration of all things tomato. In the past, members in the acts were almost exclusively east side residents. Not so now.

“We’ve even got a couple of artists coming from out of state,” Jans said. “It’s not focused completely on East Nashville.”

You’ll hear Americana tunes from The FolklahomaAppalachi-Groovetrain and Homemade Water; pop by Wendy Jans; rock by Trinity James and Big Bad and The Young Republic; blues by Tee Dee Young and much more.

Although the festival has elevated its presence and, to an extent, moved beyond an extremely “East Nashville centric theme and presentation,” it remains true to its roots of promoting the quirky charm that is Five Points.

Perhaps no element of TAF better illustrates this than the early morning parade, this year to be led (for the first time) by Halfbrass, a New Orleans-style brass band with trumpet, trombone, sax, sousaphone, snare drum and bass drum. Upwards of 200 people are expected to don insane clothing, chant to the tomato gods and march with the band.

“We’ll do the parade under the banner of the Category 5 Social Aid and Pleasure Club (a nod to the organizations in New Orleans),” said Dave Thomas, parade co-organizer (with wife Joyce Kisner) and the man who will bang the bass drum as part of the frivolity.

Thanks, in large part, to the dedicated toil of countless volunteers, the Tomato Art Festival might be the defining element of Five Points. Its genesis dates from 2004 — when Meg MacFadyen and husband Bret devoted their Art & Invention Gallery to an exhibit of tomato-themed paintings, photos and crafts. The exhibition is now held the second Saturday in August each year, and you can dislike tomatoes and know nothing of art, yet still be impressed.

Art, food, music, a parade, Five Points — with the world’s most popular non-meat edible as the theme. The combination has been a winner, attracting lots of attention via write-ups in Southern Living and AAA’s Going Places magazine.

“I opened up my AAA magazine, and it listed the Tomato Art Fest as one of the fun things to do in August,” Meg MacFadyen recalled. “We’ve been in all sorts of magazines and papers, and I don’t even know about it.

“You never know,” MacFadyen added, “where the Tomato Art Festival will show up.”

This Saturday, it will show up — and shine like a plump tomato — at its Five Points home.

What: Sixth Annual Tomato Art Festival
When: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday (street vendors will conclude at 8 p.m., with area bars and restaurants closing at standard times)
Where: Five Points, East Nashville
Cost: Free