As a people’s army, the IDF does more than just defend the country: It promotes settlement in remote areas, offers conversion courses and, apparently, supports the arts.

For the second year in a row the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers has hosted an art competition for all members of the IDF. Some 160 soldiers, ranging in rank from private to lieutenant colonel, submitted their artwork to the competition, entitled “Colors in the Barrel.” The invitation showed a warrior in full face paint looking through the sights of a rifle.

Last week some 85 finalists and their families gathered at the soldiers’ hostel in downtown Tel Aviv for the exhibit opening and the selection of seven winners. None present were in face paint or fatigues. They were, in fact, being hugged by doting parents and tapping their smart phones.

Avigdor Kahalani, head of the organization that sponsored the competition, took to the podium to announce the winners. Short and clean-cut, without the mane of hair he had when he was awarded Israel’s highest military citation for his actions during the Yom Kippur War, Kahalani told the crowd that “we are known for walking around with a knife between our teeth, but for this evening we have decided to put it aside.”

Kahalani assured the crowd that though he knew more about tanks than art, he was certain that there were some in attendance whose signatures we would all one day want. “Remember who discovered you,” he said, wagging a finger at the young soldiers and their parents.

Zvi Fedelman, the head of Avni Art Institute’s Visual Communications department, was one of the judges of the competition. He stood alongside Kahalani as the decorated colonel prepared to announce the winners. Before proceeding, Kahalani looked at him askance. Fedelman was dressed all in black with gold-rimmed, flip-down shades and a combination of chains and suspenders that dangled on either side of his impressively baggy pants. “If I wore those kinds of pants I would be arrested,” Kahalani said. Then he went back to talking about art. Or at least he began to, but then looked back at Fedelman and remarked, “Believe me, I won the medal for bravery but you deserve the medal for daring. How do you dare leave the house in those pants?”

The exhibit before the soldiers arrived (Photo: courtesy Ronen Dvash)

The exhibit before the soldiers arrived (Photo: courtesy Ronen Dvash)

Each of the winning soldiers, five of whom were women, received a year-long scholarship to the Avni Art Institute. The winning works were entitled “Blossoming,” “Empty Cartridge,” “The Cat,” “The Big Bang” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” among others.

I stopped next to “Empty Cartridge.” Oren Israel, a female soldier from the secular settlement of Alfei Menashe, serves in the Intelligence Corps as a field look-out. Her first words of praise were for her father. “He taught me how to use my first camera.”

She studied art in high school but rarely takes photos now that she’s in uniform. “Occasionally sunsets and that type of thing,” she said. But one day, while looking at a spent bullet cartridge, she thought about how similar it was to the ink insert of a fountain pen. She put an ink-smeared insert next to a 5.56 caliber cartridge and surrounded it with what looked like fine black gunpowder; in her prize-winning photo, the thick black liquid contrasts nicely with the grains of powder.

A prize winner (Photo credit: courtesy Ronen Dvash)

A prize winner (photo credit: courtesy Ronen Dvash)

Ayal Amar, a career NCO, is a mechanic from the Druze village of Julis who also doesn’t engage in art while in uniform. Amar, the crowd favorite on Facebook, won a scholarship with a shot of a drop of water impacting a bigger body of water. He says he created the photo while his wife was asleep. “Night after night I went into the kitchen when she wasn’t watching and tried not to make a big mess,” he said. “I put plastic down on the floor and then tried to catch the drop in the perfect light. It isn’t easy.”