By: Mary K Cantrell
This Saturday Shirley’s Temple, a volunteer-run DIY space in Northwest Austin, will transform from a vacant airy garage to the living room of Bort, the local anonymous street artist.
If you’ve done any roaming on Austin’s streets you’ve undoubtedly happened upon Bort’s imaginary best friend – a benign, yet spookily mysterious creature with wide eyes and perky ears that is almost synonymous with every stop sign, fire hydrant, and abandoned wall in the 512. Bort estimates she has placed nearly 2000 posters, 18,000 stickers, 100 wood cut outs and countless stencils around the city’s urban interior. And that’s all in a matter of about two years.
Her “Vote Bort” campaign last fall championed slogans like “legalize homeless” and “make s.r.s. (Sexual Reassignment Surgery) affordable.” The transwoman animates her character to viewers by presenting Bort in various positions and expressions in the hopes that Bort becomes other people’s imaginary friend as well. “I started in 2015. I didn’t know anyone; I had cut everyone out after trying to get out of addiction and anorexia stuff and I was depressed and self-isolating (which I just am always doing),” Bort says in an e-mail interview. “Bort helped the loneliness be less cumbersome.”
Bort accomplished her goal when Noah Sleeper, founder of Unsettled Culture – an arts curatorial brand organizing the show – was experiencing a severe depressive episode and found comfort through Bort’s imagery while walking the streets at night. “It was cool, it was like wherever I went there was someone else that wasn’t okay,” Sleeper says. “Not being alone in your depression and your trauma, that sharing of these feelings is kind of the point of this show.”
Bort and Unsettled Culture aren’t looking to cure depression, addiction, anorexia, suicidal thoughts or other mental health issues. They just want you to know you aren’t alone. “A lot of people are not okay right now,” Sleeper says. “A lot of queer people, a lot of people of color, a lot of women and we are just trying to provide a place for them just to mourn maybe.”
Everything from the setting of the show to the bands booked reflects an effort to comfort. Each of the five bands selected to play the show – Monte, Little Thief, 1nce, Crxmbs, and BFF – have a softer, acoustic vibe. Fully dedicated to the living room theme, Unsettled Culture is also bringing Craigslist furniture into the space. “A living room elicits feelings of home, feelings of comfort, safety, maybe for some people- both involved in the show and some people who show up- it might be like the living room they never had growing up,” Sleeper says.
“Bort helped the loneliness be less cumbersome.”
In an effort to incorporate the aspect of anonymity in Bort’s work there will be face painting and body painting at the show, to encourage people to engage more deeply with the character. While her desire not to be arrested for vandalism is a huge motivator for Bort needing to remain anonymous, she believes it also heavily influences the way people see her art.
“Staying anonymous removes me from the work (I hope). With the street work Bort (my imaginary friend, not me) is what I want people to focus on, I don’t want them to think about me as a person or at all,” Bort says. “Anonymity has the same effect on the studio stuff too I guess. It adds separation between the work and me so a piece can be more about disassociation rather than me being disassociated.”
Unsettled Culture’s team has plans to install large cardboard cutout Borts that will come up out of the ground and take over the garage walls. All artwork will be for sale, with a variety of different price ranges. Zines about Bort’s views on street art, her struggle as a transwoman and her dealing with self-isolationism and depression, will also be available.
“She’s certainly not against using the unique perspective she has to help people,” Sleeper says. “She wants to make her own perspective useful, so that’s why she’s very open about things she goes through.”
Whether or not Bort will be in attendance at her first ever solo show Saturday is still up for debate. Sleeper says, “I would love for her to be there, but I completely understand if she doesn’t.”