creating the thread

The Work of Hils Tranter

A single thread, stretched tight, zig zags across the viewing-gap in Tremenheere’s Pagoda, beautifully disrupting it’s romantic view of St Michael’s Mount. This geometric web cocoons the viewer in a space that almost hums with a sense of focus, as if the thread itself is twanging its own strange song. In the fading light of mid-summer, the pink and lilac sky is cut up with these delicate interruptions. One feels a sense of purpose in following these threads – where they intersect and cross; your eye is allowed time to languidly trace them, transforming the space into one of meditation and reflection. Although the sky is dissected, the silhouetted string seems to grow out of the shadows of the undergrowth, or of the wooden frame itself. Like a giant spider web, it is an addition, and a comfort for the viewer: it holds them. For myself, it reiterated the ancient connection between women and weaving. I thought of Arachne and Minerva, Philomela and Penelope – women who were both restricted and liberated by thread. It is a mainly female tradition that has held women in it’s feminine binds, but also allowed for freedom of creative expression, when no other avenue was available. This concept of thread being connected to emotional liberation, is one that theaters together Hils Tranter’s work. ‘Time Bound’, is an installation that reveals simply the essence of her art; it was created for Jesse Leroy Smith’s collaborative exhibition ‘Sol Force’, ‘a rampant banquet of art for the summer solstice; a festival of camaraderie, nature and hope’ as Leroy Smith himself described it. 




The idea was conceived quite naturally by Tranter, she explained that it was a notion that materialised organically: she could see and feel herself making it before knowing exactly what the piece was. The exhibition surrounded ‘Sol Force’ or ‘life energy’, thus ‘Time Bound’ chimes in with the linear and continuous lines within the body, such as capillaries, nerves, neurons, pulse, the body’s continual conversation through ‘messages’ we often conceptualise as immeasurable pathways. The artist wanted something in keeping with the spirit of the gardens, and as there are many ley lines in the area, so this installation’s use of continuous line and natural elements rang true with its surroundings. The materials used, comprising a single thread, nails, hooks and eyes, were simple and eco-friendly, which was both important to the artist and the concept of the exhibition. The experience of creating the piece was bodily laborious because of its size, which resulted in a residual energy of deep concentration beings transposed into the space and therefore inhabited by the viewer. More personally, the installation surrounded wrapping and healing, with the taut strings representing a tension. The connection between thread and healing is continuous in the artists work, as she makes artist books by sewing and binding. These books, along with her journaling, become vessels for catharsis and healing for a woman who was never allowed her own space to shout. Like Philomela, weaving and its direct connection to writing, has become the only proper way for a muted Tranter to express her thoughts and emotions without restriction. As this tounglessness was residual from a family life that was taut with parents who did not speak to each other for long periods, it is even more poignant that the cord Tranter used belonged to her mother. It is interesting that she couldn’t bear to cut the 242 metre cord when dismantling the installation, it had to be unwound slowly and laboriously, taking as much care to unravel it as she did to put it up. Thus she became a kind of Penelope, carefully unpicking her handiwork, relishing its impermanence. 


Tranter’s enjoyment of bodily movement and the focus on the continuous line is further explored through her ‘mindful mark making’ practise. Often used simply as an exercise to promote free creative flow, the artist uses stems of ink-dipped grasses cut from her garden, to create line drawings across rolls of paper. She states that this process is ‘tuning in to the physicality of the grass, the ink, and where it leads. It’s about living in the moment.’ The choice to use grass instead of pens is because the artist relishes the lack of control, ‘being open, and connecting to something deeper.’ She does these exercises for the ‘pure joy of mark making’, but often these pieces of work will find themselves stitched or concertinaed into her hand-made books, which are sewn and bound from scratch, creating a restrained, taught, humming tension within their very pages. Each book is entirely individual in both its exterior and interior composition; she first finds a size that suits the particular sections of mark-making she has selected, and then thinks about which segments of the mark making fit together, to ensure visual conversations happen across her pages. Often this involves mixing in deliberate or ‘conscious’ marks. This process in itself is interesting, as the aim of these conscious marks are to look as ‘unconscious’ as possible: ‘you have to learn to trick yourself’, she explains. Often the difference between the two is discernible, and sometimes it is not, but the contrast between controlled and uncontrolled allows for a mixture of both focus and fluid energies to run through the pages. In this way, they are read like music, long languid notes mixed in with staccato dashes, a long pause caused by a deliberate, hard circle, or a studden ending caused by the edge of a page. 


The grasses themselves have been the inspiration for one of Tranter’s pivotal pieces, ‘Dancing shadows – inside/outside’: created with grass mark making, string marks and layers, the image prophetically resembles an open book. The artist keeps the grasses in a tall jar on the windowsill of her studio, and this piece was a response to the shadows they make on her studio wall. The artist has always been drawn to shadows and reflects that, ‘people talk about shadow sides as something bad, but sometimes you only know something is there because you see its shadow.’ Her work is often an outlet of repressed emotion, yet through the creative process she is able to examine her fury, expel it, connect with its source, and understand its relevance. The ‘shadow’ emotion allows for expression and is the vehicle for her art’s creation: ‘opposites can exist at the same time, with shades of grey in between; they create balance.’ 


Her worked-on journals have led the way to this acceptance, as these shadowy, scribbled, partially destroyed, and, crucially, beautiful objects take their root in frustration and loss. The loss of her parents combined with a lifelong feeling of constricted personhood and voicelessness, has led to this explosion of anger-fed objects. One could liken her to Medusa, a myth she very much connects with. The fury that builds inside her is unleashed as both a destructive and beautiful force: after all, Medusa was a kind of sculptor. The writing process that lays the foundation for these journals, is done through the technique of writing daily ‘morning pages’, which can last from between twenty minutes or two hours, depending on the day. This again links her work to healing and positive catharsis, as this technique is often encouraged to promote good mental health. Tranter admits that, ‘sometimes it brings optimism, insights, and clarity, and sometimes it’s an embarrassing dirge’, therefore, in order to transform them from personal purgative journals into art-objects, she has to go through a process of brutal editing. The artist has a continuing and altering conversation with herself about what is private and what is not, as she understands that the profoundly truthful elements of her work are the reason they resonate so deeply with her audience: there is an authenticity to work so personal. The ‘dirge’ of intense emotion that she writes with is extended into her self-censorship; she does not neatly cross-hatch over words or lines, she attacks her pages with pen, pencils, electric drills, picks, drowning, and fire. 


In the run up to open studios 2019, her extraordinarily powerful film – a recording of her ‘Burnt journal’ – released something in many people who watched it, none more so than in the artist herself. This act of arson came from allowing anger to take over. Tapping into residual and habitual feelings of uselessness, this annihilation was a reaction to frustrations of making and a desire for perfection in her bookbinding. Her eye was drawn to a particular journal in the corner of her studio, a journal from 2010 when she lost both parents in six months. In rebellion against her tendency not to let things go, she took the journal out into her garden and started hacking at it with a pick. She wanted to physically break through the surface, as if to break through to the centre of herself. In all the wounds she had made in its surface, she placed matches, so when she lit them the book was turned into a forest of flame. 


Although the artist often creates through the mediums of words and books, it is important that her journals are considered as objects, in other words, not to be read. They have metamorphosed into something new through that process of defacement. She wants the objects to be open to interpretation, which is another reason why they are often destroyed beyond legibility. She defines her journals as ‘made objects’, they are not sculptures or installations, as this suggests something far too static; they invite the viewer to touch, handle, leaf through and respond to them. Each one is unique, and its title unpretentiously declares the object and what has happened to it: ‘Drowned journal – obliteration (January, 2018)’, ‘Hacked journal’ – cutting ties (New Years Day, 2018), ‘Drilled journal (2018)’. This wipes clean any personal objectives, allowing them to become entirely the viewers. ‘If you leave things open, you allow a dialogue: you allow someone to come in, fill up the space, and think’, says Tranter. She explains that even in their creation, sometimes the actual words aren’t what are important as the act of furious scribbling alone channels her thoughts and emotions. The letters and the words become like the strings she binds her journals with, sometimes they are looped and sloped, slow and deliberate, or sometimes she writes so she can’t even read it, like the criss-crossing of the string on the pagoda. Her father was a strict teacher and skilled calligrapher, so this process flips between a desire for his approval, and completely perverting his practise. This love of what is written is similar to the love and compulsion to bind and sew and create, from her mother; she says there is ‘a security in books, pens and pencils’ because this is what made up her childhood. From this familiarity has come something else, something more her own, ‘a safety in sketchbooks, and books, and words.’ Crucially, her written pain has oxymoronically come from a history of voicelessness and of inauthenticity, but the objects, installations, films and artworks she creates through harnessing troubling emotions, are entirely and authentically ‘hers’. She has created her own thread, and she will loudly play upon it. 

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