Getting Uncomfortable with Death and Creativity at The Departure

Getting Uncomfortable with Death and Creativity at The Departure

“Death has always been milling around in my practice.”

I’m in the light-filled gorgeous studio space of Hayley West. Her beautiful making and showing space are within the new Mill complex in Castlemaine. A Central Victorian township that is affectionately known as North Northcote,” brimming with creative businesses operating with and for a difference.

creative businesses operation for and making a difference

“It was when I did my Masters that I began to research the death industry in depth, and I began to realise how fraught this industry is. Becoming a Death literacy advocate has become an important part of my art practice.”

At this early stage of this interview, I wasn’t really sure at all what Hayley was talking about. My intention was to conduct a nice safe interview with Hayley to find out how creativity is building her business, but I found myself talking about death and the business of death—a subject I rarely consider!

The Departure - studio view

I came across Hayley’s work on Instagram and then her Facebook page, both called “The Departure”. I loved the look of her work and the way she was using social media to share her practice. I recently listened to an interview on Download, a show interviewing the makers behind the Glass Bedroom series. Profiling six Australian millennial artists who use Instagram to create self-portraits, it is a great documentary about how art has changed in the digital age. Little did I know, Instagram really was just the surface for the depth of Hayley’s complex and important work into death advocacy.

Hayley goes on to explain that her work as an artist and as a death literacy advocate is about death and not dying. (Me nodding, and scrambling for my brain to take in these new concepts—is there a difference between death and dying?) “My passion is getting people organised for death, and thinking about what is possible when organising a funeral.” Hearing the word “organise,” I relaxed a little, feeling like I was back in my comfort zone.

“The Departure is a curious combination of making space for advocacy, the discussion around death and also it is connected to the art world.” Hayley goes on to explain, “In the space of The Departure, I can do something I really love within my local and digital community. It is about contemporary art and challenging (Western) societal taboos around death.” Importantly to Hayley, ideas about death in this space (and on social media) can keep on growing.

Studio view of death items for sale at The Departure

“The deathie network is huge in the UK and US—in this network I am known as a deathling or a deathie. (I can’t help it—my eyebrows raise while I scribble in my notebook). “Social media is so important because you need an online community to sustain what you are doing when you are operating outside of social norms. This is a space that not many people think about and it can be very uncomfortable.”

“Especially when my advocacy focuses on affordable and natural burial and questions the established funeral industry and the practices they have in place. I strongly believe that elements of this industry need to be questioned, and people need to be aware of how they can be taken advantage of in a this very vulnerable time in their lives. There are some wonderful funeral homes, you just need to know where to find them.”

“Online, there is lots of support for natural burial and more environmentally friendly cremation options. The UK and US alternative funeral industry is moving fast, but it’s taking its time in Australia.”

Death Cafe

Hayley also co-hosts a local Death Café in Castlemaine — connected to the international Death Café movement. At a Death Café, people talk about death over tea and cake. Death Cafés happen in 40+ countries.

She kick-starts death discussion in her studio gallery space with a coffin. “I wanted to have a coffin in here so people can actually see and touch one. Generally, people don’t think about death until they have to, usually not until they are physically sitting down with a funeral director being talked into buying something conventional and expensive,” Hayley smiles. “The coffin in here really works to get a conversation going. People say, “Oh my God, this is a coffin?!”

The coffin at The Departure is biodegradable: woven from ethically farmed wicker with a non-dyed calico interior. Hayley explains, “It’s on loan from a local funeral home, and people often like to have a peek inside. They will then stay and talk about their own experiences with death Kids are the most curious, they love being in here because they love all the skulls!”

So how do death and art work together at The Departure?

Ceramic urns by Hayley Mills of The Departure

“The Departure is my studio and gallery. I show my own work, and work made by other artists with the theme of death. It is also a shop where you can purchase death-related items such as personal adornments and (non-native) animal skulls.” She also offers services such as facilitating cremation ashes to be placed into memorial glass weights.

I have an ongoing project where I’m making ceramic urns for ashes and have just received my first commission for vessels to hold the ashes of two family pets.” Hayley sources hand-built, discarded ceramic vessels from op-shops, some have also been donated. She reclaims these once loved, one-off ceramic forms and makes custom lids for them, giving them a new ‘life’. Right now, she is sourcing inspiration and icons from the “Book of the Dead.”

Ceramic skulls at The Departure studio

“I have an idea, and the material that I use to express this idea is secondary. I do play with all art forms except painting.” Hayley’s need to continue to explore the idea of death and provide opportunities for others to do the same comes from her own lived experience of death in her family.

“I wasn’t equipped to deal with my family’s deaths—the funeral, the wake and then the grieving that comes and goes. When I look back, I can now see that my experience was so hands-off. If I could, I would organise my parent’s funerals differently and manage life after their death differently.”

“I first attended a Death Café because I wanted to know what people did with all the stuff that is left behind when someone dies. I went to the café with this thought in mind but then I found I could talk about anything. I am an artist who has experienced a lot of death.”

Make this venture sustainable

“The Departure is so important to keep my ideas generating and keep conversations happening about death in this space and on social media. I’m still working out how I fit in, how to make this venture sustainable and also how I can influence.”

Follow Hayley and The Departure on:

Instagram @the.departure