Maria Sweeney would rather have walked across the stage on her own, addressing her fellow Moore College of Art and Design graduates Sunday from behind the podium. Instead, the 22-year-old - who has a rare disease that causes her bones to break and her joints to freeze - took a wheelchair to the stage and spoke from a padded chair.
Those who know her weren't surprised. "That's Maria," they say. She is continually challenged and tackles each setback with aplomb. Her determination and positive outlook have made her a favorite among her classmates and instructors.
"Maria is one of the strongest and most amazing people I've ever met," said Kit Kazmier, an illustration major and the 2016 class valedictorian. "What she has overcome in these past years inspired me in so many ways."
A few days before graduation, Sweeney was asked about the challenges she routinely faces. She doesn't like this topic, wanting any focus on her to be about her art, not her health. Still, she answered.
"A lot of setbacks are physical, not being able to participate in certain events or doing what I want. That's a sad truth to grapple with," she said, pausing, worried she wasn't understood, then: "but I have [grappled with it], so it's not that sad.
"What I want is not what I get, and that's OK."
She never imagined that one day she would be speaking at her college graduation - a perk of winning this year's $4,000 Happy Fernandez Women's Leadership Prize, named for the late Philadelphia councilwoman and education advocate who served as Moore's president for 13 years. Never having felt fully accepted or understood by her high school classmates, she finished her coursework online.
Then Moore helped her come into her own as a leader and artist - the self-published comic book she illustrates, In a Rut, is for sale in stores on the East Coast and online.
"Moore is the place I can call home," she told her classmates, family, and friends during the commencement ceremony. "My experience at Moore has been transformative."
Sweeney was born in Moldova, a former Soviet Republic in Eastern Europe, and was adopted as an infant. She has Bruck syndrome, a disorder that combines brittle bone disease and a congenital joint abnormality that causes stiffness and limits range of motion. She's had more broken bones than she can count - she kept a tally as a child, but the game grew old as the numbers climbed higher and higher.
When new acquaintances fear a handshake will harm her, Sweeney explains that most of her injuries come from falls or constant pressure. She has a firm grip, despite having tendinitis in her right hand, the one she draws with.
Sweeney said she fears losing the use of her hand, then quickly notes all artists fear losing their means of creating.
"That's not specific to me," she said.
Sweeney grew up in a small New Jersey town on the edge of the Pine Barrens, a place she repeatedly describes as quiet. As a teenager, she became interested in art, but there were no local classes. Instead, she went to her library's art section and picked out books on nature drawing and portraiture.
"I'd draw a very clumsy tree and say, 'OK, I can do that. How can I make it more realistic?' And I just went from there," she said.
Moore was the only school to which Sweeney applied - and the school welcomed her with scholarships and grants that covered almost all her expenses. Despite her physical limitations - besides broken bones and surgeries, Sweeney can easily become worn out and require rest - she immediately got involved in the school and embraced the urban campus that helped her connect with other artists.
"It's the first time in a very long time that I have friends who just see me," she said. "To come to Moore and have people say, 'Oh, you're the girl who did that art' or, 'You're the girl who drew that comic' - not, 'You're the girl in the wheelchair' - that's amazing. That's what I've always wanted."
There were adjustments to make along the way: Because of her physical limitations, Sweeney doesn't work on large-scale projects, finding even a life-drawing class that required working with 18-by-24-inch paper a challenge. She remembers avoiding one class during her freshman year because she knew the scope of the work.
She also had to make time for doctor visits and treatments, but she worked hard to schedule appointments around school, "because if you miss one six-hour drawing class, you're really behind," she said. After a medical setback in December, she considered taking a break from school to recover. She didn't.
"I wanted to graduate with my friends," she said, simply.
Jeff Dion, an adjunct instructor in Moore's illustration department, said Sweeney always "went beyond." For her work-study job, she took on the responsibility of monitoring the weekly open model sessions so she could practice her figure drawing. It was a tough job - requiring her not only to schedule the models but also to set up and light the studio and clean up afterward - "but that was all part of her quest," he said.
"I have students who complain when they have to walk from the train to the school and it's raining out. And then there's Maria," said Dion, who nominated Sweeney for the leadership prize. "When you know everything she goes through, a complaint like that doesn't really hold up."
Sweeney began drawing comics two years ago.
She likes the immediacy of the medium.
"Comics allows the satisfaction of creating art, putting it out there, and moving on to the next thing," she said.
She doesn't do "cape comics," i.e. the superhero genre. Instead, her works are based on personal stories, and that's a good thing, she said.
"I'm coming at a time where publishing companies are calling for diversity in comics, whether that be in the stories themselves or the creators," she said. "Marvel and DC are still as strong as ever, but there's definitely a yearning for more personal stories.
In a Rut is just one of Sweeney's projects, a collaboration between her and boyfriend Eros Livieratos, the writer. The quasiautobiographical series follows different characters as they face life's challenges. The couple self-published the first issue in the fall. Sweeney has medical issues that may sideline her this summer, but she intends to keep working - on freelance projects or the comic. The second edition of In a Rut will be ready for publication this fall.
Sweeney creates the pages in Photoshop. It's time-consuming, but the layered images give the look of watercolor. The lettering comes from a font based on her own handwriting.
"There are certain arts that some people feel are inaccessible, but comics isn't one of them. Comics are meant for everyone," she said. "I hope people find some relevance in the comic and are able to connect it to their own lives. Sometimes, you feel like you're in a rut, and you have to work very hard to get yourself out of it, but you can and you will."