The Dead Set: Interview with artist Hayley West of The Departure

The Departure is a studio, gallery and shop dedicated to death and all that remains. The Departure is a space to ponder your own mortality, educate yourself on end of life matters, and encounter death themed artworks and events. The Departure believes in empowering the community by sharing practical knowledge through exchange and generosity.

Tell us about your space, The Departure…

The discourse around death in our current media and amongst Australians in general is growing. People are becoming more death literate as they are exposed to the concept of talking about death and dying, especially around hot topics such as euthanasia. The Departure is assisting in normalising this discussion. By walking into the space, you are confronted with my smiling face, artworks with the theme of death, and death related items such as the wicker coffin and cremation urns. My interest in alternative burial and cremation options is often discussed, some visitors are surprised that bio-degradable coffins are even an option. Many of my visitors are becoming alert to the fact that they can indeed shop around for affordable and customer led funerals. I have much information to share with the general public; my wish is that they take this information back to their families and communities and share the knowledge.

The Departure is a space for the public to interact with. I believe wholly in the exchange of knowledge and sharing of ideas through generosity, I see my venture as a social enterprise rather than a profit making business. Unfortunately our local council is making the financial struggle very real for artists and start-ups in Castlemaine. I am trying to work out how to make The Departure sustainable and have enrolled in a business course, finding a local training group who provides fantastic mentoring and student led group discussions to brainstorm ideas.

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Le Linceul (burial shroud), Hayley West: cotton, fish scales (made during a residency in Saint-Louis, Senegal)

I see my role as an artist as a social role, my door is always open for the general public to wander in. The Departure is in an independent space in a highly touristed precinct of Castlemaine, The Mill. By having artwork in the space with the theme of death (works by myself and other artists) visitors can engage with contemporary art through discussion about death, and visa versa. I am also an active artist in the space – The Departure is my studio so I’m working on ceramic pieces for example as well as engaging with the public in my role as an artist and death literacy advocate. My presence in the space could be read as an ongoing performance work – you could say a very long durational piece!

Tell us a bit about your background (as an artist and other areas that have informed this work)…

After graduating in 1998 from RMIT (Sculpture) I helped establish the artist-run-initiative Seventh Gallery in Fitzroy with some friends. I then moved around quite a bit, travelling and living in Taiwan. I ended up in Darwin in the Northern Territory where I lived for eight years. For the majority of that time I ran the artist-run-initiative DVAA and worked for the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art. As well as exhibiting, I’ve been very lucky to have received many national funding body grants and participated in some inspiring international residencies.

In Darwin I got married, became a stepparent, had a child, then moved to the Blue Mountains in NSW that turned out to be the wrong environment for us. About 18 months ago we all moved to Castlemaine in central Victoria, which has been fantastic so far. I grew up in Upwey and Fern Tree Gully, so I’m a Melbourne girl originally.

However as a first generation born Australian I have a particular non-attachment to place, and so travel and the concept of ‘home’ play a big part in my identity. Family history is fascinating; apparently I come from a line of horse race fixers, jockeys, carny folk and potters. My heritage is English and Swiss Yenish (aka the blond gypsies). The story goes that my great-great-great grandfather left for England and changed his name to West. It’s all stories handed down though, the interesting stuff is never recorded!

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Kitten, cat, dog skulls from personal collection

I’ve read that your arts practice relates to a lived awareness of death and memorial, focusing on the realities of grief and how remaining objects and memories are interconnected. What’s your relationship with death and how does that interact with your art?

Being an orphaned adult in my 30s really affected my identity and place in society and has inturn amplified death as a theme in my arts practice. I am interested in the attachment to memories through objects and items left behind when people die, and have in the past created artworks reimagining these objects as sculptural pieces. My Masters by Research project ‘Remnants of the dead and demands on the living’ explored these ideas. One of my current projects is collecting discarded, handmade ceramic vessels from op-shops and creating ceramic lids to fit them. They become ashes urns or spirit vessels as some people have commented. I love the idea of giving an unused/unloved vessel a new life.

Since I was a child there have been deaths in my immediate family, however the discussion around death and dying was completely avoided and a no-go zone. I feel the need to rectify this by encouraging others to talk to their family and friends about their own wishes, and to hear the wishes of their loved ones in return. Grief can be so complicated and personal, knowing just a few practicalities for arranging a funeral or cremation/burial for example can help to relieve a little bit of anxiety for those dealing with the aftermath.

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After The Gold Rush, Hayley West: digital image (from of an installation originally shown in Jogjakarta, Indonesia. Blown up images of the artist’s family from Sovereign Hill, Vic 1970s & 80s)

What are the trends in the current zeitgeist that inspire you?

Stopping to think about how you will affect the environment in death as well as life is so important. I have a particular interest in natural burial and am a member of the Natural Death Advocacy Network.

I’m excited that more dedicated natural burial sites are opening up around Australia. The closest dedicated site to Castlemaine is in Carlsruhe in the Macedon Ranges. I’m hoping by the time I’m to be buried there will be one in the Goldfields region.

I love the idea of ‘whole-family cemeteries’ where pets can be buried with their humans. There are no sites currently available in Australia, I would love to see this happen somewhere in the country.

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Welcome to the Field of Reeds, Hayley West: ceramic cremation urns – found vessels, custom lids (from a series working from The Book of the Dead)

Hayley is a death literacy advocate, member of the Natural Death Advocacy Network and has co-hosted Death Cafés since 2014 in the Blue Mountains, Canberra, Senegal and now Castlemaine. Hayley has finally found her way back to Victoria and has recently settled in Castlemaine.

You can find her and The Departure at:

The Mill, Shed 42,
1-9 Walker Street, Castlemaine,
Victoria 3450, AUSTRALIA

and

p: +61 400287553
e: hello@thedeparture.com.au
w: www.thedeparture.com.au
Instagram: @the.departure
Facebook: @thedepartureAU

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Hayley West & daughter Ramona Richardson in front of After The Gold Rush