Artists heal our world in various ways: by celebrating Indigenous heritage, building social cohesion, asking difficult questions or telling enchanting stories to our children.
Alumni are the backbone of every university's legacy - not only are they powerful ambassadors but also generous donors. As a university woven into the social fabric of the communities we serve, the University of Wollongong (UOW) takes great pride in alumni worldwide making a global impact.
In November, we celebrated the UOW Alumni Awards, a testament to our graduates' incredible contributions to society. In recognition of the accomplishments of our talented graduates who make waves in the arts, culture and creative sectors in the Illawarra and beyond, we have introduced a new Arts and Culture Award. This is particularly fitting in 2023, as we celebrate 40 years of Creative Arts at our University.
Arts and culture are a fundamental element of any society. They help us understand the world and one another - particularly in times of division and uncertainty. They make us curious about the different or unfamiliar and maybe even allow us to accept it. Artistic expression is not just a sensory experience but can be a powerful tool for healing and reflection.
If there was ever a pressing time for arts and culture to come to the forefront, it's now.
The inaugural winner of the Arts and Culture Award, Dr Virginia Keft, is a proud Murriwarri woman, artist, performer, researcher and producer, living and working on Dharawal and Gadigal Country.
Virginia holds a double UOW degree in creative arts and English literature, and a PhD in literature and visual arts. Her visual arts practice is a powerful statement on the resilience of tradition, the persistence of cultural memory and the strength of Aboriginal identity.
Between her roles leading Weaving Connections, a socially engaged project of collaborative weaving, and producing the inclusive and vibrant Wollongong Belly Dance Festival, she has been instrumental in creating bangawarra Art Yarns: for older and Elder mob at the Museum of Contemporary Art. This free interactive program supports First Nations peoples living with or at risk of developing dementia, breaking the boundaries of cultural wellness.
As Australian statistics show a much higher incidence of dementia in Aboriginal communities, Virginia's work is both a celebration of art and culture and a novel health initiative for the most vulnerable.
Many would agree that there's nothing more special than children's literature, simply because reading books opens minds and hearts. Jacqueline Harvey, a finalist in the UOW Arts and Culture Alumni Award, is a highly experienced teacher turned one of Australia's most popular children's book authors.
Jacqueline has written over 60 books, including Alice-Miranda, Clementine Rose, Kensy and Max and the Willa and Woof series, some of which have been made into movies.
With a Diploma of Teaching (Distinction) and Bachelor of Education (Primary) from UOW, it took her 20 years of a hugely accomplished teaching career to step into writing full-time. She often says that even though her heart had always been in teaching, she wanted to spread joy and positivity in children's lives through books.
Passionate about improving literacy outcomes for all children, Jacqueline is also an ambassador for Dymocks Children's Charities and Room to Read and supports many organisations, including Yalari, The Indigenous Literacy Foundation and several schools in Central Western NSW.
She fondly recalls an encouraging UOW lecturer who urged her to explore writing. It's a gift that she heeded that advice.
Kumi Taguchi, another UOW Arts and Culture Alumni Award finalist, has had a remarkable journey from a talented classical violinist to an accomplished journalist.
Hailing from rural New South Wales, Kumi's early years were marked by the strings of the violin. Her talent did not go unnoticed, and she secured a scholarship to study music through the UOW's Bachelor of Creative Arts program.
Shortly after graduating, her love of storytelling drew her towards the media. In a broadcasting career spanning more than two decades, Kumi's high-profile roles include hosting and presenting on a wide variety of programs, from ABC News to SBS, emceeing the Invictus Games opening and closing ceremonies to a global audience of 60 million, and recently also leading the SBS's Insight program, captivating audiences with her insightful reporting and compassionate approach.
These three remarkable women, with different degrees and diverse life paths, all share an incredible power of creativity that has been shaping our world for the better. As we celebrate their contributions and achievements, I hope their stories serve as a source of inspiration to think big, pivot courageously and reach for the stars.
This story was originally published as an op ed in the Illawarra Mercury.