Montgomery High School artist wants people to see beauty in immigration

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Latino Life

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Given the bitter debate over immigration in the United States, it’s easy to lose sight of another, more hopeful, side to the story.

Artist Rima Makaryan, a Montgomery High School junior, wants people to see beauty in the immigrant experience, and not just focus on border walls, family separations and other charged elements of the current debate.

Drawing on her own experience as an Armenian immigrant, Makaryan pushes viewers of her work to appreciate those who come to this country seeking better lives, or to escape hardship or violence in their native lands. The story is as old as America, yet one this 17-year-old believes is being largely forgotten or ignored.

“We neglect the beauty of it (immigration),” Makaryan said recently outside the student artists’ studio at the Montgomery High campus.

That hopeful message is impossible to overlook in Makaryan’s signature piece to date, a majestic 12-by-32-foot “Dreamer” mural that for its sheer size alone forces viewers to consider the teen’s point of view. The mural depicts a woman, her face imbued with different shades of brown and her gaze skyward, and long, flowing, richly colored hair.

Monarch butterflies, a universal symbol of migration across the U.S.-Mexican border, flutter about the woman’s visage. Their inclusion is the most overtly political element of the piece, which otherwise could be construed as just another pretty face.

Makaryan is vice chairwoman of the Sonoma County Junior Commission on Human Rights and chairwoman of the Immigrants’ Rights Committee.

She originally wanted to include pro-immigration words and thoughts on the mural but was advised against it, over concerns they might detract from her message, according to Jennifer Tatum, creative director for Santa Rosa’s ArtStart, which is collaborating with the teen on the project.

“Sometimes, you have to tread lightly with a subtle message. Then you can talk more about it,” Tatum said.

The pair had never met before Makaryan called Tatum out of the blue in November asking for help with a mural project. When they met, the teen outlined a grand vision for a mural on the AT&T building in downtown Santa Rosa. Tatum said she encouraged her to take it one step at a time.

In an interview, Tatum said young artists can benefit from going through the sometimes frustrating and tedious challenge of finding funding and space for their work. She said Makaryan displayed uncommon ability at those tasks.

Mead Clark Lumber Co., Amy’s Kitchen and the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights have all contributed to the project. Other high school students have pitched in to help create the mural.

Of course, in the highly charged atmosphere over immigration, a message of positivity about the issue can be construed as controversial. Makaryan is undeterred, saying high school students in particular should not be “shielded” from uncomfortable truths.

The teen said she became aware of concerns over her painting of an actual Montgomery High student who is on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status — most commonly referred to as Dreamers — on a wall elsewhere on campus. The unidentified Latino boy has hair the color of the American flag and “act now,” “equality,” “resilience” and other words and phrases drawn onto his face.

Latino Life

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“I find it kind of flattering,” Makaryan said of her critics. “I made something with meaning.”

Dennis Miller, Makaryan’s art teacher at Montgomery, said she stands apart from other students because of her willingness to broach difficult subjects in her work.

“She’s going to tear up the world,” Miller said of his protégé.

Makaryan knows as well as anyone how immigration to the United States can be a positive, life-affirming experience. She and her family immigrated from Armenia after winning the lottery for a permanent residency card. Otherwise, they likely would have remained in the former Soviet republic.

Makaryan said she is grateful for the opportunities she has been given in this country, viewing it as a place where a person can make their life what they want it to be, “for the most part.”

Tatum, with Artstart, has encouraged Makaryan to “be brave and put that message out there to remind us all to keep the conversation going. She’s not making a statement about how you should do this or that, or what’s right and what’s wrong. She is bringing attention to the beauty in all of us.”

Makaryan is searching for a permanent home for the Dreamer mural, one that is more visible to the public. Tatum said the teen recently received permission to install a smaller version of the mural downtown in the South A Street Art District’s “art alley.” The high-profile setting is quite the honor for a budding artist.

As for her future endeavors, Makaryan, who holds a 4.64 grade point average at Montgomery High, said she has not settled yet on a career choice. But whatever it is, she says she will continue her advocacy for immigrants’ rights.

“People from different fields need to be politically active,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor, engineer or artist.”

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