Art can make us think, it can make us feel, and it can make us reflect. For Rima Makaryan, Founder and Executive Director of The Monarch Project, art has been a tool to advance social justice causes in a way that encourages the viewer to welcome new perspectives and learn from the lived experience of those who may be different than us. Rima’s passions lie at the intersection of art and social justice, and her work embodies the beauty, boldness, and reverence she has for the subjects of her artwork. In her young life, she has provided opportunities to use art as a tool for positivity, healing, and conversation in communities all over the world.
Rima was born in Armenia and moved to the United States with her family in 2010. For Rima, Santa Rosa has always been a multicultural space. When she arrived, she didn’t know whether to learn English or Spanish first, as both seemed equally helpful to know. She was enrolled in a French immersion school, and then went on to attend Montgomery High School. Rima became involved in social justice related extracurricular activities, including the Sonoma County Junior Commission on Human Rights where she started the Immigrants’ Rights Cohort within the organization in response to the actions of former president Donald Trump, his administration, and their attempts to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. Rima and her cohort began exploring ways to get the word out: campaigning for immigrants’ rights, putting up posters, and collecting signatures.
Throughout this time, Rima started to gauge the effectiveness of different forms of outreach in spreading her message. She had always gravitated toward visual forms of communication, so she began to focus on how to make the group’s vision come to life through the power of art. It was during this time that the Dreamer Mural came to be, where it graces the Montgomery High School campus to this day. During the work on the Dreamer Mural, Rima fell in love with the theme of monarch butterflies as a representation of immigration, and it was a theme that others connected strongly with, too. Thus, The Monarch Project was born. Monarch butterflies can now be seen all over Sonoma County and serve as a visual reminder of the beauty and vibrance we invite into our lives when we open our eyes, hearts, and minds to the world and its people. Rima recognizes the unique power that visual forms of communication hold in conveying important messages and causes. By allowing the public to view as well as participate in the creation of these murals, she and the Monarch Project have created spaces designed to spark both creative expression and political discourse in a visually striking, uplifting way. To Rima, using public art to convey these messages also allows the public to have access to a medium that has been traditionally out of reach to many underrepresented populations, and has the power to humanize those who many not have the opportunity to safely speak up otherwise: “Art cuts through a lot of the noise...I think that is the power of public art. Especially the fact that it’s accessible and it also, in some cases, is a safer option for people to express themselves and to infiltrate into spaces.”
In addition to the Dreamer Mural, The Monarch Project has a feature on their website where visitors can view various locations where other murals are located around Sonoma County called the Monarch Map. Some of these murals feature local social justice leaders, including D’mitra Smith, Rosie Hammock, Joy Ayodele, Bernice ‘Bere’ Espinosa, and others. She has collaborated with Sonoma County Artists Propelling Equity (SCAPE), as well as Little Star Charitable Foundation to help provide arts education for a school in Hartagyugh (Heartagyugh) Village located in the outskirts of Lori Province in Rima’s home country of Armenia. Here, Rima worked on a mural highlighting the local flora and fauna of the village that was completed in 2021 with hands-on help from the students of the school. Rima is currently a sophomore majoring in Architectural Design at Stanford University and plans to use her education to address inequities in urban planning, among other things.
Art can be as confronting as it is beautiful. For Rima, art has empowered her as well as others to leave a mark on the world and take ownership of the space around them, making it clear that the presence of people of color, and particularly those from immigrant populations, are vital and important, and that representation in a positive, uplifting light matters to the overall wellbeing of the community.
“I think living in fear of that just is going to disempower you and keep you in shackles like you must be willing to take that risk...I think it's scary to be seen by the world, but otherwise you're just invisible. And so, it's a choice: do you want to be invisible, or do you want to take a shot? Maybe you're going to ruffle some feathers and maybe someone isn't going to like you. But that means you're doing something important; if everyone agrees with you then what is the point? If I say the sky is blue, no one, no one disagrees with that, but what does it change? It's not important, because everyone agrees, so if someone disagrees with you that it means that it's important; it means there is something out there worth exploring. And so don't be afraid to make a mess.”
Rima Makaryan was interviewed by Haley Katz, Community Engagement AmeriCorps VISTA.