Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2007 | People

Activist Artist: Myrna Balk

By Shelbi Thomas
Artist activist Myrna Balk has helped abused women at home and abroad discover the transformative and healing effects of putting images on paper.

Myrna Balk

Words couldn't express the horrors these young women had endured. But the paper and crayons that Myrna Balk placed in their hands offered an unexpected yet cathartic release.

Balk, 61BA, a Boston-based social worker and artist, has journeyed to Nepal several times to work with victims of domestic violence, childhood marriage, human trafficking, and sexual slavery. Warned that the women were too ashamed to discuss their pasts, Balk invited them to draw their stories.

"As soon as I gave them the art supplies, there was silence—they were so intent," she says. "They'd line up to tell me what the drawings were about, and they wanted everyone to hear."

The crude yet haunting sketches of girls shoved into beds and curled up timidly on the floor did more than help the women come to terms with their experiences—they also ignited Balk's own artistic passion.

Inspired yet revolted by the revelations of abuse, Balk produced a series of powerful artworks denouncing human trafficking-an international problem estimated to affect millions of women and children a year. Exhibited at a United Nations show, at galleries in the U.S., and on Balk's website, the woodcuts, collages, etchings, and monotypes depict the grim reality of a business built on human misery.

In one woodcut, a shadowy pimp figure holds girls captive in a bag and crushes a songbird underfoot. "Sometimes, I can't believe I'm doing this," Balk says. "I have a wonderful husband and two children; I ask myself where this anger comes from."

While the Nepalese women prompted her recent artwork, Balk traces her activist passion to her days at Iowa in the 1950s and '60s, when she and other UI students made a stand against racism and inequity. Just as college opened her eyes to the world, she hopes that her art raises awareness of the untold misery of millions of abuse victims at home and abroad.

"These problems are still unknown to a lot of people," she says. "Americans often have no concept of what the rest of the world is like."