Practical Magic

by Katharine Reece MFA '12

Elijah BurgherWhen most people hear the word “sigil,” they think of medieval ways of conjuring demons, Icelandic symbolic carvings, or Dutch hex signs dotting the Pennsylvania countryside. For Elijah Burgher ’00, sigils—inscribed or painted symbols considered to have magical powers—provide the form for much of his art, some of which was exhibited last spring in the Whitney Biennial.

Sigils are a form of magic open to those among us who know what they want, Burgher says. First, you spell out the words of a particular wish or desire (it can be something banal, like finding a lost item). Next, you cut out the letters and recombine them into one symbol, which you em-power or “charge” through meditation or a similar practice, Burgher says.

“What I love about magic is that it accurately describes our psychological investments in the world,” says Burgher, who also teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Regarding sigils: “They’re a form of symbolism that is functional—we use symbols, we make them, and we surround ourselves with them."

In “Build better human beings,” Burgher drew a sigil that often appears in his work (and is tattooed on his arm). You’re supposed to forget the sigil’s original intent, but this one was intended to improve Burgher’s work ethic. He remembers this one, as it’s the desire he makes sigils for most often. “The magic definitely works,” he says, “because in order to draw it, I have to have a stronger work ethic. It’s self-fulfilling.”