Among many beautiful and mysterious projects, artist Eliza Gauger designs mesmeric, fantastical glyphs based on problems submitted to her by strangers. For a person worried their disability would make them unlovable, Gauger designed a rampant Velveteen Rabbit, more majestic for having been loveworn. Two noble Venusian statues bow lovingly in the direction of a person who wishes to be a better dancer, reminding them that EVEN STONE IS GRACEFUL. For a person haunted by the memory of an abuser, Gauger drew a tree root insisting through an upturned skull, elegantly captioned KILL HIM.
The Problem Glyphs project is ongoing, funded via Patreon; users can back Gauger's glyphs apiece, but none can pay to give their personal request any more weight or priority than anyone else's. From among the hundreds of queries she receives—she has drawn more than 250 glyphs and there are more than 1,500 unanswered requests—Gauger creates glyphs based on the ones that speak to her. Thanks to Kickstarter, Problem Glyphs has also been brought to life as a premium art book featuring one hundred of the designs.
The design of glyphs, characters, or illustrations that may encompass complex stories or intentions within a single image, dates back to ancient civilizations (think hieroglyphs). The idea that emblems might confer power or protection plays a role in many forms of magic, but is also virtually mainstream in human society—there are very specific rules governing the use of certain emblems, like the medical cross, in wartime. For another example, when we're in a land where we don't speak the language, familiar emblems often give us more information or direction than words can. Glyphs are imbued with the power of our conscious reading.
The imagery that Gauger chooses in response to a problem always gently suggests what kind of solution it might summon—the eyes of nocturnal animals in response to a querent who felt "lost in the dark", for example. This approach to symbol magic has resonated with thousands of followers empowered by both Gauger's strong designs as well as the care and attention she puts into each individual glyph.
When I asked Gauger about her glyphs, though, she revealed something interesting about the craft and process of her work, which is done not in burnt charcoal and bone nor in wax and blood, but in a free drawing tool called (mystically enough) Alchemy. Even for a non-artist like myself, the description of the tool intrigues: it's "an open drawing project aimed at exploring how we can sketch, draw, and create on computers in new ways."
In Gauger's hands, the tools and processes seem as magical as the glyphs themselves (she draws live on Saturdays on a Twitch channel called Sweatshop). "The process of creating a glyph is not a regular drawing process," she told me. "It's more like sculpting with wax—by which I mean it's a process of adding black, and then carving it away with white."
In other words, it takes the laying down of several dark strokes and lines on the white digital "canvas" before Gauger starts to liberate the clean final image from the initial illustration. Yet the Alchemy program preserves every impulsive line, every original stroke, as vector files, so that in a program like Adobe Illustrator, you can look at their entire history, both positive and negative lines, like you're seeing a multiple-exposure recording of their birth.
"So in terms of artifacts that are magical but digital, the glyphs exist in several (simulated) dimensions simultaneously," Gauger says, "as a superficial drawing or sigil, and then as a record of its entire creation, hundreds of strokes deep."
The .SVG format output files are available to all Gauger's patrons, but this is the first time she's publicly explained the scope of what it is the patrons are receiving. "I just say they're vector files, which they are, but the glyphs are, in a sense, fourth-dimensional."
Where an ordinary drawing only "knows" what lines comprise its final form, Gauger's glyphs retain a memory of being brought into being. "The final glyph also represents the labor I performed over hours to create them, literally every stroke I put down or obliterated."
A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been scraped off and reused (the Latin root means scraped again), a page with a history greater than whatever its most recent purpose is. In that sense, says Gauger, the Problem Glyphs are a kind of digital palimpsest, imbued with an energy and a history that far transcends both ordinary digital drawings, and "ordinary" magical glyphs.