KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — The walls of the Kennebunkport home Jennifer Merry shares with her husband, John, are covered with art. From paintings, to mixed media, to cut paper, there is something to draw your attention to every surface.

Several pieces are Merry’s, while others are credited to friends, co-workers and even former students. The effect is simultaneously engaging, warm and intimate — much like meeting Merry herself.

No doubt, Merry’s visual art students at Thornton Academy in Saco feel the same inviting energy when entering her classroom.

“I lived in the art room in high school,” Merry said. “It’s the happy place for many students.”

Merry’s co-workers believe she has gone beyond fostering a safe environment to inspiring creativity. It was Jodi Thomas, a fellow visual art teacher, who nominated Merry for the honor of Secondary Art Teacher of the Year last year through the Maine Art Education Association.

“[Jennifer] is the most dedicated, creative, knowledgeable and collegial educator I have worked with,” Thomas said. “She is a truly inspirational art educator that embodies a constant enthusiasm and exploration in the field.”

Merry said she was blown away when she heard she earned the recognition.

“The kids were happy, and my family was really touched,” Merry said. “I was beyond words.”

But, for the veteran educator, the honor went beyond recognition of her work, to a chance to bring attention to the importance of arts education.

Merry grew up in Somerset, Massachusetts, and attended college at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, where she majored in education. Though always an artist, Merry felt a strong pull to the classroom.

“I love designing lessons,” Merry said. “I love seeing the magic that happens working with children, seeing them develop an idea and carry that idea through the different steps from start to finish. I find great joy in that and in mentoring that process.”

‘The language of art’

Soon after graduating, Merry moved to North Conway, New Hampshire, where she worked as a freelance illustrator, skied and met her husband. When she felt an itch to use her teaching degree, the couple considered living close to John’s family in southern Maine.

Merry liked the area so much that she accidentally applied for the same position twice, addressing one application to Thornton Academy and a second to what she called Saco High School.

“When I was interviewed by the headmaster at the time, he said, ‘You really must want this job,’” Merry laughed. Merry landed the job at Thornton in 1984 and still keeps in touch with several of her first year students.

“I’ve been there 30 years,” Merry said. “It’s the first time in my life I’ve made the top 10 list for seniority.”

Aside from location, it was the highly respected arts program that attracted Merry to Thornton Academy.

“The instructor held high standards and yet covered a wide range of different art forms so students could start with foundations classes and then work their way up to advanced classes,” Merry said. “I wanted a job, and I wanted a job in a place where I wanted to live, but this met all the criteria on my wish list.”

The public-private institution has since bolstered its staff to three full-time visual art teachers and two part-time positions, with a separate media arts team. Merry teaches all levels, grades 9 to 12. Her course load includes drawing, painting and foundations classes.

“In a foundations class, a student is going to get a little bit of everything. They’re going to learn the language of art, they’re going to learn how to critique, they’re going to learn art history, so that even if that’s where they begin and end, we hope that they will then have skills to be creative problem-solvers,” Merry explained.

“She understands that content and production are important, but most important is what the students find out about themselves in the process,” Thomas affirmed.

Of course, several of Merry’s students have progressed much further, ultimately pursuing art as a career. One Thornton Academy graduate works as an animator in Los Angeles, while another had a textile design selected for an Olympic Stadium. Another has had jewelry designs published in books.

“It just makes me beam,” Merry said.

As far as her own art — mostly drawing and mixed media — Merry confessed she is largely deadline driven.

“It’s hard” Merry said. “Snow days, summertime. I did two pieces of work two summers ago for charity. It’s good to have deadlines, and it’s good to be able to give your work away.”

‘Artists first’

Although Merry has a dedicated studio in her home, she sacrificed some of her space to accommodate the social lives of her two boys, now grown.

When Merry’s art does appear in shows at places that that include the Maine College of Art, the University of New England and the Saco Museum, she is sure to invite her students.

“It’s good for my students to see,” Merry said. “I work with two powerhouse women, and we are artists first and that’s what we tell our students. We’re artists first and teachers second. And that’s what is going to make a good art educator.”

Ironically, it was Merry’s work outside the art classroom that helped her clinch the title of Secondary Art Teacher of the Year. This included directing the Thornton Academy summer arts camp for 10 years, and more recently, co-teaching an after-school “X-Block” class called Sailing Through Girlhood. Merry works with Thornton Academy social worker Ari Hadiaris to design the lessons around everything, from female empowerment to nutrition.

“I worry about girls,” Merry said. “Working in the high school, there’s a lot of things that I see that worry me. And I really feel that the girls who were in last year’s class look at the world with different eyes. So if we can chip away at that with each class that we run, I hope that it will impact them for the rest of their life.”

Merry feels the same way about art classes.

“If we can teach students to be innovative thinkers that possess a creative toolbox, it’s going to help them succeed in any area they pursue as a career,” Merry said. “In art, there’s no one answer to a problem, there’s multiple solutions to a problem. It teaches curiosity, it teaches you to be an explorer. We encourage students to take risk.”

This dedication is not lost on Merry’s colleagues.

“For each day, Jennifer has awakened the joy in expression for some student — art-inclined or otherwise — in such a way as to inspire me, her peers, parents and other students,” Mark DeFrancesco, school counselor at Thornton Academy, said. “She has the passion, skills and love for art and her students.”

“My mother never wanted to retire,” Merry said. “She always tells my boys, find work that brings you joy. You’re going to do it every day. Find work that brings you joy.”

Merry clearly found her joy as an art educator, and her students, colleagues and the greater community benefit from her success.