“I sweat at all my jobs,” says the Israeli-born muralist and street artist Anat Ronen, her accent an unlikely mix of guttural Hebrew and South American Spanish, a mélange she soaked up in Haifa from Uruguayan-born parents. “It is nothing for me to work in 115-degree heat.”
She and a reporter are walking from Houstonia’s offices in the Heights to Ronen’s latest piece of art, which is painted on the side of Avis Frank Gallery, and she is hardly sweating. It was the reporter’s idea to conduct this interview during a two-mile stroll in the broiling June sun, which has so far produced only one valuable piece of information: the reporter will never be a muralist or street artist.
Their destination is “Yes She Can,” a roughly six-foot-square portrait of Malala Yousafzai, the heroic Pakistani schoolgirl/education activist who was shot in the face by the Taliban in 2012. Ronen modeled Yousafzai on Rosie the Riveter, the headscarf-wearing, factory line–running, bicep-flexing icon of World War II–era American proto-feminism, though it’s the blue of Yousafzai’s tunic and the red of her scarf that leap out from the mural in the white-hot summer light. To drive home her point—that the real-life Yousafzai will do for women in parts of the Islamic world what the fictional Rosie did for American women—Ronen added one of Yousafzai’s most famous quotes: “All I want is an education and I’m afraid of no one.”
This being Houston, a few passersby have registered their objections. “Some people did not recognize her, so they asked, ‘Why is she wearing this headdress? Maybe we are all becoming Muslims,’” Ronen says, though she seems unfazed by the criticism, or anything, for that matter. “My family is not religious, so I am not afraid of God punishing me. Whatever comes to my mind, I put it out there.” It is a typically blunt assertion, though one quickly qualified. “But nothing too nasty, because in the end, I am a good girl.”
Ronen shuns make-up, perfume and jewelry, and since dabbling lightly in her youth, has never smoked, boozed, or drugged. “I am a very simple person,” she says, her aesthetic skewing toward simplicity too: representative, never abstract. And whether for that reason or another, she is, quite simply, everywhere.
Her most widely viewed work is surely the 360 feet of aquatic- and saltmarsh-themed murals she painted on the safety barriers of the Galveston Causeway in 2009, all while crouched behind a TxDot safety truck as big rigs rumbled past at 70 miles an hour. She’s painted Lone Star emblems on the Katy Freeway and festooned Garden Oaks Elementary with dozens of native Texas plants and animals, including horned toads, scorpions, and birds of every feather. (On their walk, she tells the reporter she’d like to be reincarnated as a bird: “an osprey, or a buzzard,” she specifies, citing two avian scavengers. “That way I would not have to kill my food.”)
That’s Ronen’s 40-foot armadillo with a sunflower in its mouth on the side of a Warehouse District building; her Toulouse-Lautrec-style calligraphy and design on the exterior of the Nouveau Antique Art Bar on South Main; and her Boston Terriers chasing down a tiger on the side of a Heights home’s privacy fence. She’s done restaurant interiors, children’s bedrooms, wall-sized Big Red/Sun Drop ads near Minute Maid Park, and—now that commissions are coming in from coast to coast—a series of murals in a small Virginia town. (Ronen’s breakneck pace is dictated in part by necessity. Since 2008, she has been allowed to work here only thanks to an artist’s visa, for which she must demonstrate each year that she is a working artist whose talents could not be duplicated by an American citizen.)
Her creations are many, and there are none she is fonder of than her large-scale political cartoons, “Yes She Can” among them. Another, “Are We Free?”, features an enormous bald eagle Ronen painted on the wall at The Mullet, a graffiti-art showcase near Almeda Mall. At first, the mural’s apparent jingoism unsettled some in the anarchic street art community. But then Ronen added the final touch—a ball and chain shackled to the eagle’s ankle—at which point it was the patriots’ turn to be unsettled.
“You can never win,” she sighs. “I mainly wanted to show how not free we really are—not because of government or conspiracies or anything like that, but mostly because of our possessions. We’re tied to our houses, cars, bank accounts, phones, TVs, computers...we think we are free to choose what we consume and how we live, but are we, really?”
Another Ronen work, “If Only,” which depicts a beaming Israeli soldier and an eye-smiling Palestinian fighter side by side, each brandishing garish DayGlo Super Soaker water guns, was a standout at last year’s thought-provoking exhibition Call It Street Art, Call It Fine Art, Call It What You Know at the Station Museum. Incidentally, that piece almost never made it to the wall, Ronen reveals. She initially bridled at Station curator Jim Harithas’s giant “Support Palestinian Statehood” installation on the museum’s exterior.
“I got a vibe then and there,” says the Israeli army veteran. “I thought, ‘Maybe I better not do this.’ And then I got back home and thought, ‘Because of that I have to do this.’” Ronen and Harithas clashed at their first meeting and eventually agreed that she would paint her mural without his input. “I say what I think,” Ronen says. “It goes with the territory of being Israeli…. I said, ‘Dude, do you want my art or do you want to argue?’”
By this time, their walk has brought the duo to concrete-lined White Oak Bayou, where Ronen—still not sweating—marvels that nature and beauty can thrive in the epicenter of an increasingly dense, fast-paced metropolis. She notices the smashed skeleton of a snake and a broken dove egg on the sidewalk, and snaps photos of monarch butterflies and white herons in breeding plumage.
Just as the reporter is beginning to swoon in the sweltering heat, the duo reaches Avis Frank Gallery, at which point he tells Ronen how much he appreciates all that she and her fellow street artists have done to beautify Houston over the past few crazy boom years. “It’s the cheapest way to make a change,” she says. “You can tear things down and build them up, but that costs lots of money. This structure was ugly before”—the gallery, whose previous incarnations include a gas station and a bar and grill—“and now it’s beautiful.”