Frances Bradley-Vilier uses art to turn pain into possibility.
As a painter who also designs apparel and accessories, she’s inspired by her own life’s challenges to create symbols of strength for women. Having developed and promoted a line of t-shirts, tote bags, backpacks and other items, she plans to expand her online business and launch new art ventures in the coming year.
Driven by experience and recognition that personal obstacles can be overcome, Bradley-Vilier says her goal through Flint-based Nielah Studios is to influence society’s attitudes.
“My mission is to create art for social change, so a lot of the work I do is centered around women’s empowerment, and a lot of it creates awareness around sexual violence,” says Bradley-Vilier, 34.
Born and raised in Flint, she survived her own experience with sexual assault at 18. The encounter would help shape her artistic vision years later.
Along with her family, Bradley-Vilier has performed and taught tap-dancing in the community through the organization Tapology. She also grew up learning to play music and singing in the choir.
“My dad wanted to make sure that we were pretty seasoned as artists, and so he invested in us and made sure we were versatile,” she says.
After graduating high school Bradley-Vilier attended University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
“I found my niche more in visual art,” she recalls.
She later lived in New York for several years where her early career “really took off,” Bradley-Vilier says.
“I was still showing my work as a fine artist in New York, throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn,” she adds.
“I maintained a balance of both worlds. If I wasn’t on stage performing I was in my studio, painting, and vice versa.”
But she’d never emotionally healed from being raped.
In 2011, a New York exhibit curated by Shantrelle P. Lewis, herself a survivor of molestation, gave Bradley-Vilier a platform to work through her trauma. Titled “Sex Crimes Against Black Girls,” the showing featured two paintings that represented the Flint native’s experience. The first, “Broken,” was a mixed-media depiction of the assault she’d experienced.
“It’s provocative and it’s a subject that people really have a hard-time discussing,” she says.
“It was hard to look at, for some people, and for others it was, ‘Oh, my God, I’m glad you did this! For any art, whether it be film, painting, or poetry, if you’re talking about it in its rawest form it’s going to be hard to digest.”
The second piece in the exhibit was titled “Zip,” featuring a woman whose mouth had been replaced by a zipper, to symbolize the silence survivors of sexual violation often choose instead of reporting the crime or talking about their suffering.
Creating the submissions was emotionally draining and sometimes hurtful, but Bradley-Vilier pushed ahead with a sense of obligation.
“Somebody needs to see this,” she’d tell herself.
“It’s not just my story,” Bradley-Vilier says. “This was a lot of women’s stories.”
Following a stint living in the Caribbean with her new husband, she returned to Flint in 2017, inspired to tell more stories of persistence and survival. Alongside her line of Nielah Wear, Bradley-Vilier is promoting “Womanhood or Woman’s-Hurt? The Art of Healing” www.womanhoodorwomanshurt.com, which includes a documentary she’s developing.
“That is an autobiographical series I’ve been exhibiting for about the past six years,” she says.
The theme of the creative works highlight “how I overcame sexual violence and how I used art as my healing mechanism,” she says.
Featuring a woman warrior symbol that appears on many of her Nielah Wear items, part of the artwork is intended simply to celebrate women. The made-to-order items can be purchased at a 20 percent discount through Dec. 16 at https://www.etsy.com/shop/nielahstudios, but the deadline for Christmas gift orders is Dec. 11.
Bradley-Vilier also plans to create designs that celebrate men. Another project she’s planning is a collaboration with a fellow survivor of sexual violation: her older sister Cherisse Bradley. Bradley’s program, I Found My Voice, similarly teaches women to use art to work through emotional challenges and trauma. The program held its annual concert at the Capitol Theatre in 2018.
Because Bradley-Vilier is more than 10 years younger than her sister, and because of the different life stages when they were violated, the siblings weren’t able to support each other in the way they can both support others today, Bradley-Vilier says.
“The whole idea of putting the images on clothing is to celebrate us,” she says. “Everybody’s got something they’ve overcome in their lives, so why not celebrate it?”