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Artist Deborah Boardman, wife of Chicago Inspector General, Dies at 57

Artist Deborah Boardman and her husband of 28 years, city hall inspector general Joe Ferguson / provided photo

Deborah Boardman created intricate handmade books that are in the collections at Harvard University and Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a library filled with rare and ancient texts.

Her watercolors shimmered like Lake Michigan, where she walked every day with her dogs.

To artists, all life is potential material.

So is death.

As she struggled with metastatic breast cancer, Ms. Boardman created an exhibit last May at Ravenswood’s Experimental Sound Studio. Its centerpiece was a empty bed that symbolized “both sanctuary and prison,” said her husband of 28 years, Joe Ferguson, the inspector general who investigates City Hall corruption. The work included banners with words from Samuel Beckett that captured her feelings: “I Can’t Go on. I’ll Go On.”

She died Saturday at 57 in her home in Edgewater. In Ms. Boardman’s last months, musician friends played songs she loved by Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro and the Beatles. “The way she handled her journey in dying, it became a communal event,” Joe Ferguson said.

She was fierce, funny and determined. “One of the things that made her mad about dying [was] that she was not going to see the last season of ‘Downton Abbey,’ ’’ her husband said.

Deborah Boardman grew up in Marblehead, Mass., and earned a bachelor’s degree at Mount Holyoke College. When she worked at a restaurant with Bostonian Joe Ferguson, she asked, “Why haven’t you asked me out?” They wed in 1987 in Cambridge, Mass. and had their reception at the Hasty Pudding Club in Harvard Square.

While he studied law at Northwestern, she earned a master’s in fine arts from Tufts University in Massachusetts. When she finished in 1988, she moved to Chicago. A year later, she landed a job at the University of Iowa, where she taught painting. They had a commuter marriage until 1994, when she returned to Chicago. In 1997, she began teaching at the School of the Art Institute.

At the dinner table, where she cooked “really amazing” vegan meals, “we would always sing grace,” said her son, Luke. He and his brother, Hugh, stayed in touch with their New England roots when the family took driving vacations to Boston and Maine. Their mother knew instinctively that the best way to quiet a carload of kids was to pass out artist sketchbooks.

Her art was inviting and teasing. In a work of performance art she created at the College of DuPage, she and the La La La Singers gamely belted out student confessions that ranged from potty mouths to procrastination to “I leave a circle of crumbs everywhere I go.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHB6ABEDi38

Her paintings encompassed the divine and the mundane, from mandala symbols to sleepy family dogs, said Amy Vogel, an associate professor at the SAIC.

Trips to India deepened her exploration of spirituality and sustainability. She was a founding board member of the International Network for Urban Agriculture. She loved Indian food from Udupi Palace.

And she was fascinated by dowsing, in which practitioners use forked sticks to search for water. When she learned that some of the cathedrals of Europe were built over underground waterways, she incorporated the idea of hidden energy sources and fault lines into her work.

Ms. Boardman was a supportive colleague, Vogel said. When Vogel was a harried new teacher, “She came into the faculty office and asked how I was doing — and I burst into tears,” she said. “She talked and made me laugh really hard, and we became friends.”

Students also found her warm, said Alexander R. Wilson, SAIC student body president. “I’ve never felt so comfortable in an academic setting,” he said. “She was beautiful. She had that ‘I’ve-Been-Loved’ glow.”

Deborah Boardman / provided photo

She is also survived by her sisters, Barbara and Marcia Boardman, and brothers, Kip, Gregory and Richard. Services are planned in December at the School of the Art Institute and the Chicago Waldorf School, where Luke and Hugh studied.

Students and colleagues said Deborah Boardman exuded a warm glow / provided photo

When she arrived in the Midwest, Deborah Boardman had a New Englander’s opinion of the Great Lakes: they could not match oceanic majesty. But she came to love the lakefront, where she sketched and walked her dogs, Mary, a chow mix, and Bridget, a Belgian sheepdog. She asked to have her ashes divided and scattered, half over the Atlantic and half over Lake Michigan.

Deborah Boardman in her Edgewater studio / provided photo