The portfolio of illustrator and animator J’Aaron Merchant proves that careers can be launched on a grand scale from Northwest Arkansas.
Merchant came to the region in 2013 to work for Walmart in sustainability. A native of the Virgin Islands, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Savannah State University in Georgia and studied animation and interactive technology at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
She later transitioned to work as a freelance illustrator and has a project underway with “Sesame Street,” developing characters for an upcoming show. She’s illustrated children’s books and completed projects for clients such as Walmart, Amazon and Sam’s Club. She also has a short film in production that’s her spin on a traditional African folk tale.
“People assume animation needs to be on the West Coast, and that’s not the case,” Merchant said. Clients discover her work online and respond to her diverse, colorful, impassioned characters.
Merchant has an office at Grit Studios in Bentonville. She animates digitally in Photoshop using a stylus on a Cintiq, sometimes reverting to acrylic, watercolor and gouache.
Her goals include writing and illustrating her own book, premiering her short film at the Bentonville Film Festival, and finding a female mentor within her male-dominated field.
“Everybody needs art,” said Merchant, a former Army brat who mailed art to her dad when he was deployed. Her childhood was happy, surrounded by sea breezes and people who work hard but value leisure.
Merchant and a friend recently launched an Instablog, Jazzy Jae NWA.
“It’s about sharing things to do in NWA that are food-art-fun,” she said.
Merchant supports Havenwood, a transitional housing program for single parents, and helps collect donations and plays with residents’ children.