The annual Distinguished Alumni Awards celebrate the remarkable achievements of UVic graduates in three different categories: the Presidents’ Alumni Awards, the Emerging Alumni Awards and the Indigenous Community Alumni Awards. This year, Fine Arts has four recipients honoured in two of those categories.

Presidents’ Alumni Award: Maureen Gruben

Tuktoyaktuk-born and -based Presidents’ Alumni Award recipient Maureen Gruben (Visual Arts BFA, 2012) is an Inuvialuk artist who’s passionate about bringing awareness to the Arctic environment through her art. A mature student and mother when she came to UVic, her works incorporate an array of materials from polar bear fur, beluga intestines and seal skin to vinyl, Styrofoam, bubble wrap and metallic tape, linking daily life in the western Arctic and global environmental concerns. Gruben’s art has been exhibited across North America and Europe, and in 2021 she was long-listed for the Sobey Award, considered Canada’s most prestigious art award for emerging artists.

When asked how her experiences at UVic contributed to her success, Gruben says “UVic was where I was really introduced to contemporary art and performance art. That introduction alone opened up so many ideas, doors, new ways of thinking and understanding that was not so traditional. It made me work outside a lot in the environment and not so much in the gallery space. It was really huge for me.”

And what’s her advice to a younger person who is possibly uncertain about their future?

“They just need to get out there and try and explore and find out what their passions are because most people don’t know early in life,” she says. “You have to go and try a few different things before you figure out what you like.”

Read more about Maureen Gruben, including the differences between living in Tuktoyaktuk and Victoria

Emerging Alumni Award: Taiwo Afolabi

Taiwo Afolabi (Applied Theatre D Phil, 2020) has dedicated his life to using theatre as a tool for social change. A prolific scholar and an applied theatre practitioner, the Nigerian-born Afolabi researches, teaches and creates participatory theatre as a means of community engagement to explore themes of education, migration, displacement, climate change, inclusion and diversity.

After graduating from UVic, Afolabi began his tenure-track position at the University of Regina’s Theatre Department where he is an assistant professor; he currently holds the Canada Research Chair in Socially Engaged Theatre, and is the founder and director of the Centre for Socially Engaged Theatre (C-SET).

His research interests lie in the areas of applied theatre and policing, social justice, decolonization, art leadership and management, migration and the ethics of conducting arts-based research. Taiwo is a senior research associate at the University of Johannesburg (South Africa) and the founding artistic director of Theatre Emissary International. His academic studies combined with lived experience of issues of race, equity and inclusion have made him a much sought-after speaker, writer, teacher and faculty member.

While his professional accomplishments are many, he’s most proud of the connections he’s be able to make, the relationships he’s built and the opportunities to engage with people. “Whether it’s in devising a play in the community, writing a paper or doing a workshop, it’s ultimately about the people I’ve been able to touch and who have touched my own life,” he says.

Read more about Taiwo Afolabi, including his favourite memory of being a UVic student

Emerging Alumni Award: Sarah Jim

Sarah Jim (Visual Arts BFA, 2019) is a visual artist of mixed ancestry from the small village of Tseycum in W̱SÁNEĆ. She works in the field of environmental restoration. Her creations reflect and advocate for the beautiful territory that the W̱SÁNEĆ have stewarded since time immemorial. Her art has been displayed across southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands and garnered numerous awards.

A common thread throughout Jim’s work—which includes a territorial acknowledgement plaque for a public library, T-shirt designs, street banners, multiple murals around the territory and native plant signs at the Horticulture Center of the Pacific and UVic’s community garden—is her desire to use art to create awareness and celebrate the historic and ongoing relationship between the W̱SÁNEĆ people and the land, sea and sky.

She says she’s most proud of merging the field of environmental restoration with her artistic practice. “At the very end of my UVic time, I started working in the field of environmental restoration and falling in love with the native plants, foods and medicines we have here and Indigenous ways of being,” she explains. “In my very last painting course, I made this piece that was all native plants with Coast Salish elements, and I was really happy with it, and my teacher said that it was the best thing I made all year and I should have been doing this the whole time. That was a really big turning point for me and my career.”

Her advice to younger people uncertain about their futures? “Just take a chance, because you never know where you’re going to end up. That’s essentially what I did. I started doing markets. I had the audacity to try to sell my things, and a lot of my friends and family supported me. And then even strangers were supporting me, too. Put yourself out there and don’t be too shy because people are going to judge you no matter what, so you might as well just do it.”

Read more about Sarah Jim, including the best advice she was ever given

photo: Simon Pauly

Emerging Alumni Award: Josh Lovell

Barely in his 30s, Victora-born Josh Lovell (Performance BMus, 2015) is already a major player in the international classical music scene. Described by the Guardian as “a handsome-sounding tenor with a warm, liquid voice and easy high notes,” he studied at UVic’s School of Music from 2010 to 2014 before attending the University of Michigan on a full scholarship to complete his Masters of Voice Performance.

The winner of numerous awards, Lovell is currently an ensemble member of the renowned Vienna State Opera house Wiener Staatsoper. He has performed all over Europe at prestigious venues such as Teatro alla Scala Milan, the Glyndebourne Festival (UK), Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Bolshoi Theatre, helping raise the profile of Canada on the international stage. He also maintains an important connection to his home, returning to perform with the Vancouver Symphony, Pacific Opera and the Victoria Symphony, where he continues to inspire future generations of performers.

He felt his time at UVic “rounded me as an individual: it wasn’t completely focused on my studies. There was time to make connections with colleagues and friends, and attend the many events that were going on around the campus. UVic really felt like a community while I studied there. Even though I grew up in Victoria, UVic felt like a different city, another country. It was a zone all unto itself where I felt welcome to take part in all that was offered and challenged to learn all that I could.”

But he hesitates to name any one achievement of which he is particularly proud. “As your experience builds with every single performance, so develops your voice and artistry. Because of this, there is no single defining moment of arrival; there is no exact moment of ‘making it.’ All you can hope for is that you develop well enough to be noticed by the most famous companies in order to be hired by them.”

But Lovell does consider himself “very fortunate” to have been able to perform at a very high level since finishing his education. “This entire journey goes back to UVic,” he says. “None of this would have been possible without my teacher, Benjamin Butterfield.”

Read more about Josh Lovell, including the skills he feels are essential to his career

Nominate a remarkable grad!

The UVic Distinguished Alumni Awards celebrate the remarkable achievements of UVic graduates. Nominations for the 2024 Distinguished Alumni Awards are open now through Oct. 13, 2023. You can nominate an outstanding alum here.

Explore all 16 of UVic’s 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award Recipients.