Artist was ‘charismatic in the extreme’

By Thomas Pardee

Marilyn Sward always kept the candy bowl at her desk filled to the top.

Sward, the co-founder and former director of Columbia’s Book and Paper Arts Center, would offer sugar to her co-workers to diffuse stressful situations in the office.

“It seems like such a small detail, but it was just who she was,” said former colleague and longtime friend Melissa Jay Craig. “I loved the energy of the workplace, and it was largely due to Marilyn. She was the most positive person I’ve ever known, hands down.”

Sward, a noted artist, teacher, world-traveler and Columbia alumna, lost a two-year battle with breast cancer on Aug. 5 in an Evanston hospital. She was 67.

Sward co-founded the Book and Paper Arts Center in 1995 by helping to merge two existing Chicago nonprofit papermaking centers into a single, more functional entity. She ran the program until her retirement in 2000.

Craig said Sward was “charismatic in the extreme.”

“She was an excellent wheeler and dealer but seemed to do it without the nastiness and the politics that usually goes along with being good at that,” Craig said. “She showed me a definite alternative to the corporate way of doing things that was somehow just as effective.”

Audrey Niffenegger, a part-time faculty member who helped start the Book and Paper Arts Center with Sward, said her optimistic approach to dealing with people set her apart from other administrators.

“It wasn’t that she was naive, she just chose to deal with people assuming they would behave in the best possible way,” Niffenegger said. “And in doing so, she created a world of people that was pretty fabulous. You wanted to live up to her view of you.”

Traveling was one of Sward’s passions, her friends said. She took students all over the world and made many personal trips throughout her life.

Jeff Abell, associate chair of the Interdisciplinary Arts Department, said her worldliness was “astonishing.”

“Indonesia, India, South Africa, Italy, France … every time I turned around she was somewhere else on the globe,” Abell said. “I’ve known very few people who were that broadly traveled, that knowledgeable about so many cultures.”

It was this broad knowledge, along with her determined belief in her students’ potential, that made her such an effective teacher, former student Stacy Stern said.

Stern studied with Sward in 1996 at the School of the Art Institute and is now a part-time instructor at the Book and Paper Arts Center teaching letterpress. She said Sward’s style rubbed off on her own teaching methods.

“She just saw power in you—you didn’t even know you had it, but she just sort of reached in and pulled it out of you,” Stern said. “I’ve been thinking about how I teach my classes, and I’m realizing that it’s a lot like Marilyn did it.”

Sward’s friends and former co-workers said she was not afraid to forge personal relationships with those around her.

Craig said it was this friendly touch that made her such an effective boss.

“Two of us took days off when our cats died,” Craig said. “Marilyn insisted we leave. And still, everything got done.”

Stern said her relationship with Sward helped her in all areas of her life.

“She was a mom, a boss, a mentor, a friend, everything,” Stern said. “I feel so grateful for having known her, and having had her in my life when I was so moldable. She helped make me who I am.”

Niffenegger delivered a eulogy at Sward’s memorial on Aug. 8. She said seeing all of Sward’s friends and family together helped her understand the reach of Sward’s influence.

“I stood up there, I looked out and there were hundreds of people out there,” Niffenegger said. “She was universally loved.”

Abell said it was Sward’s unrelenting optimism and determination that allowed her to get what she wanted out of her career and her life.

“People knew her for being active in the community and involved with kids,” Abell said. “She was the ultimate suburban mom, and at the same time she was this respected artist who was jetting all over the globe where people were saying, ‘Marilyn changed my life, Marilyn is such an amazing person …’ She embodied those kinds of contradictions.”

She’s survived by her husband, Stephen Sward, and two children, Eric Sward and Heather Duncan.