She Burns Bright burns bigger, brighter with weekend-long Franklinton festival

Nikki Wonder expands on her female-centric event, taking over Secret Studio, the Vanderelli Room and Wild Goose on Saturday and Sunday

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Nikki Wonder, middle back row, and other organizers of this weekend's She Burns Bright Festival photographed on the festival stage on Tuesday, October 5, 2021.

In January 2020, Nikki Wonder assembled the first She Burns Bright, which took place at Ace of Cups and was designed to shine light on the talented female musicians in Columbus whom Wonder did not see getting an equitable share of stage time. 

“When we did the first one, it was a little bit of, ‘Well, I’ll show you what I can do,’” Wonder said over coffee in early October. “The whole thing started with a bitter pill. I’ve been performing in town for 30 years and it’s hard for me to get a gig. What about all of these other women that you never see performing?”

In the months since, Wonder has hosted a handful more editions of the event, the drive behind it gradually shifting from a show of defiance to a true celebration of female empowerment that has further opened Wonder’s eyes to the diversity of talent in Columbus, much of which will be on display when She Burns Bright takes over part of Franklinton for its first festival on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 9 and 10.

In addition to a pair of musical stages — a main stage outdoors at Secret Studio and a smaller, acoustic side stage dedicated to the late Emily Noble — the expanded event features drag kings, live painting, dance, poetry, comedy and even a mini film festival that takes place at the Vanderelli Room beginning at 3 p.m. on Sunday. (She Burns Bright will also take over the performance space at Wild Goose Creative; a full schedule of performances and set times is available here.)

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“I don’t think anybody has a clue how many wild, really excellent female artists are in this town. I didn’t,” said Wonder, who continues to uncover new artists both online and through newly established connections. “I’ve really enjoyed discovering new art, and it’s been motivating for me to have a project like this to focus on. It takes me out of my own neurotic artist head.”

Wonder’s hope is that festival attendees can tap into at least some of the sense of discovery that has fueled her through these COVID-marred months. “I love festivals, and I love discovering weird, unusual things. … It all seems very magical, and it’s something I get excited about, so I hope it resonates with everyone else, this idea that if you’re not into something that’s happening here, well, there’s something spectacular over on the main stage. And if that doesn’t resonate, there’s something more intimate on the Noble stage,” Wonder said. “Last year, I felt like I was in a big cloud of despair, and there were points where it really did feel like it was going to be the end of the world. … But I feel with vaccination and masking, we’re in a good place, and people are just hungry to be together.”

The idea for the fest was planted in Wonder by poet and Secret Studio cofounder Amy Turn Sharp, and has continued to snowball, which has stretched Wonder’s abilities as an organizer to their limits, she said. In the weeks leading to the event, she was juggling 10 different notebooks and myriad papers taped to the wall, in addition to keeping up with messages via Facebook, Instagram and text, all of which conjures images of Matthew McConaughey’s “True Detective” character working his garage pinboard in the hunt for the Yellow King.

“I’m really excited about the talent, but I’m kind of overwhelmed by the scope of it, like, ‘Oh, God, what have I done?’” Wonder said, and laughed. “So, yeah, it’s completely snowballed, and while I’m nervous, I’m also thrilled about it.”

When planning for the first She Burns Bright, Wonder said she worried about the walls that some women in her generation had previously built up around themselves — “Well, she does this. Oh, she’s pretty. I wish I was this,” she said — though she quickly learned that distinction existed largely within her own head.

“It’s kind of cool realizing that we’re all rooting for each other, really, and we just needed that introduction. We just needed a reason to be connected,” said Wonder, who envisions She Burns Bright Fest becoming an annual event, rounded out by smaller shows staged at local venues throughout the year. “Those preconceived notions, that shit is all in your head. It’s not real. And I’m finding all of this out at the ripe old age of 52. … And now I can’t wait to see women go crazy [this] weekend.”