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Art professor says the creative process of painting and drawing relates to God’s creation of the world

portrait of BYUH art professor in blue button-up collared shirt sitting in front of a painting holding a paint brush
Jeff Merrill sits with his paint brush in his office, where he creates much of his artwork.

Creating artwork mimics God’s creative power, said Jeff Merrill, associate professor of visual arts in the Faculty of Arts & Letters.

Merrill, who worked as an illustrator for more than 10 years and attended the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, California, said many people see art as a “frivolous, unimportant pursuit,” but he emphasized the importance of creative power.

“One of the titles God uses often and that we read about in the scriptures is ‘Creator,’” explained Merrill. “The scriptures have a lot of information about the creation and how he created things and why he created things. That’s something really essential to the definition of God.”

He said he wants to emphasize the importance of creating but is not trying to compare himself to God. “Being creative usually benefits more than the creator. In a sense, it’s a service to everyone. When we create, we problem solve, we invent, we build, we develop, we beautify. It’s a positive experience.”

Gospel principles and creativity

One of the things that fascinates him, Merrill said, is that art and the creative process contain analogies for the gospel, such as the creation of the world.

He shared how he tries to teach his students in a way that combines the two topics. “Some of these principles of design really integrate and mirror and interface perfectly with gospel principles,” he said. “It’s given me a blueprint to navigate and a lens to see the world through.”

Hikaru Kikuya, a senior from Japan studying painting, said Merrill is very spiritual and encourages students to include their faith in the Lord in their careers. “He offers challenges, but at the same time, he knows how hard painting [and drawing can be].”

portrait overhead shot of female student smiling while holding a paintbrush and wooden palette
Hikaru Kikuya, one of Merrill's students, holds her paintbrush and palette as she begins the creative process.

Merrill said he hopes his students learn to be “critical observers.” He explained he wants his students to not only learn the art principles, but also understand them and have the critical thinking skills to solve problems that may arise.

The rush of creating and teaching

Merrill, a self-professed “representational artist,” said he feels a sort of exhilaration or “adrenaline rush” when he is able to represent a person through art.

He explained adrenaline “is like a power drink. It gives you something beyond your own strength. And I don’t know that it’s necessarily adrenaline, but it feels that way.”

His personality plays a role in his exhilaration about art, he said. “I go through these times where my mind gets super creative. It’s like all the synapses are firing and there are so many thoughts and ideas.”

Merrill’s favorite part about teaching, he said, is interacting with the students. “I feel energized ... being around them and sharing art. There’s something there that also gives me an adrenaline rush. It’s super exciting for me to share what I know with students.”

landscape shot of student in blue shirt posing with painting of the temple grounds on an easel
Samuel Ching, Merrill's TA, poses with a painting he did of the Laie Temple grounds.

Samuel Ching, a senior from Hong Kong double-majoring in art education and painting, and Merrill’s teaching assistants, said Merrill strives to help the international students, particularly those who don’t speak English as their first language. “He would reach out to them and make sure they [understood] each concept [clearly],” Ching explained.

Merrill said when he was choosing his career path, he tried to consider other options, such as being an orthodontist, but he always came back to art. “Art has given me a sense of identity. It’s given me opportunities to grow. As much as anything, it’s given me a sense of fulfillment in life.” •