Artist exorcises military trauma through drawing

Dana Harel spent three years as an Israeli air force officer and 20 years figuring out how to process the emotional repercussions.

Dana Harel photo/ronit citri

The experience of carnage and comradeship in the military over two decades ago are intricate parts of the 43-year-old’s current artworks.

“The act of drawing is healing,” the San Francisco-based artist said in a phone interview from Tel Aviv, where she spends every summer visiting family. “The more I am researching myself and my subject matter, I am discovering things as they surface.”

Her newest exhibit, “Between Dreams and Nightmares,” features 15 mixed-media drawings of animal and human figures. The free exhibit is on display at the city-owned Palo Alto Art Center through Sept. 7.

Harel, whose drawings have appeared in galleries throughout the United States and Israel, was born and raised in Tel Aviv. She and her husband came to the United States to attend college in California, and decided to stay after completing their studies. Harel studied architecture and began her career in that field after graduating in 2000.

“When I’m Gone”

“But it was when I became a mother that I had a revelation,” she says “Architecture was a job, but never a passion of mine.” So she traded in her drafting table for an easel after she had her first child. Her two children are now 12 and 7.

The transition from architect to artist was seamless, Harel says, and has helped her work through the trauma she endured during her military service: “There’s a lot in my process and perspective that comes from my architecture training.”

A primarily self-taught artist, Harel had little experience with drawing, but wanted to transfer images in her head onto paper. The images are “somewhat abstract, but expressive and very emotional,” she says. “It’s not about their proportions or the pencil strokes.”

“Between Dreams and Nightmares,” organized by the Laguna Art Museum, includes monochrome figures such as “When I’m Gone.” The drawings pull from her experience in a male-dominated military unit. She says being surrounded by men in tight quarters created close-knit relationships with her fellow soldiers. “I got to know men in a way not a lot of people get to see,” she says. “I got to know men not in a traumatic way, but in a very revealing way.”

Her current work tries to capture what is going on inside a soldier’s head during combat and when he or she leaves the battlefield.  “I wanted to ask, ‘What’s going on inside when they close their eyes at night?’”

What are the half-human, half-animal illustrations really about? “It’s the duality of being someone who loves animals and humanity, and being thrown in a situation where you have a gun in your hand,” she says. “Psychologically, you understand. But you sometimes get angry that you have to hold a gun.”

The drawings are also a way to cope with the trauma of war. In the Middle East, Harel says, you must always wear a [figurative] mask and pretend you are not afraid, even if you are: “It’s a really tough environment.”

About the current war in Gaza, Harel says that conflict is an inherent part of growing up in Israel and that everyone figures out a way to deal with it. “It’s something that becomes engrained in you.”

While Harel’s drawings are primarily masculine, she says she tries to infuse femininity into her work. “In ‘When I’m Gone,’ the man points his foot like a ballerina,” she says. “But I see myself in the figures as well. Maybe I’m hiding behind them, or maybe they are just me.”

“Between Dreams and Nightmares”
is on display through Sept. 7 at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto.

Abra Cohen