Printmaker Bree Rooney's artwork I retraced your steps a thousand times, twice is on display as part of the Repeater exhibit at the Newcastle Art Gallery. The piece was purchased by former Newcastle Art Gallery director Ron Ramsey and then donated to the gallery. The story behind the art is worth telling, particularly as National Missing Persons Week begins on August 2.
Rooney's brother, Owen, went missing in Canada on August 14, 2010. The last 10 years of her life have been traumatic. Owen's remains were found three years ago, and she explores his disappearance and death in her work. It's the concept of being conscious of time, how much time has passed and being lost in time.
The piece is a collagraph print. Collagraphy is a printing process in which the artist inks up a plate and puts it through a press. Rooney's is made out of different glued-down materials, creating a textured surface. The ink goes through a printing press and is transferred over with paper.
"I went back in with cotton and stitched lots and lots of line. It's an abstract work, but it represents an aerial map. We did physically search in paddocks and the bush. We were going over places over and over, this repetition in looking twice, creating that back and forth," Rooney says.
"I really like the different textures you can get from material. The material was denim and old clothing; I just used old scraps at home. But now I've got my brother's clothes, I'm going to use them in my practice."
She says, "I can remember the day he went missing, and I'll never forget that, but every other milestone kind of went blurry."
Rooney, her sister, Kelly, and Owen were living in different towns in Canada when Owen went missing. From what they understand, Owen was assaulted while hitchhiking from a music festival and he ended up in a hospital in a town on the Canadian-US border. From there, he just disappeared.
"It was such a small hospital; they didn't have cameras. He was kind of treated like a Shamballa zombie [just another festival goer]. It was one of the biggest festivals in Canada. They weren't concerned about him. He left all his stuff behind and we got a call and all came," Rooney says.
The search began.
Rooney's eldest brother Sean and her parents flew to Canada to help search for the next eight months. Rooney and her sister stayed longer, but eventually, they, too, came home, and continued searching via the internet.
In 2018 a Canadian search and rescue team found his remains in bushland, three kilometres away from the hospital where he went missing. The autopsy result: cause of death unknown.
The repatriation was expensive, and Rooney can't thank her family and friends enough for their support during it all. Rooney says the Missing Persons Advocacy Network, an Australian organisation, supported them, too.
"They're dedicated to supporting families of missing people. The system doesn't really know how to deal with missing cases. When they're missing, your family still doesn't have rights to any of their accounts or legal affairs," Rooney says.
Rooney will likely process the loss of her brother for the rest of her life, and she says her art is a therapeutic way to do so. The piece in the art gallery is one in an ongoing series.
"It is abstract, but a lot of my work is endurance. Endurance and the repetition of taking time over and over again," she says.
Rooney has always been an artist, but Owen changed her art.
She started working on the series while she was at uni after he'd been missing for a few years.
She tried consciously to avoid working on the subject; she didn't want to be "another person with a tragic story putting it into [her] art."
But she couldn't avoid it and came to find it actually made her work rich.
Rooney is honoured that Newcastle Art Gallery has acknowledged and displayed her piece.
Though it's a personal story, it is also about living with ambiguity and the repetition of searching. "I think that's something a lot of people can relate to. We've all lost someone or something," Rooney says.
National Missing Persons Week is meant to raise awareness of the significant issues surrounding missing persons. It is also used to profile long-term missing persons and educate the Australian community.