Celebrating 20 years, PACE comes full circle

Guidry, center, with his teachers Simeral, left, and Biasiolo Photo by Allison DeHart

What do you get when you blend the influence of Picasso, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring? The artwork of Lafayette native Ben Guidry. A working artist, writer and hip hop musician, Guidry uses geometric shapes, collage, abstract figures and lots of color to make political statements about our times.

Guidry, 23, got his first taste of Picasso through Acadiana Center for the Arts’ PACE program, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Now he’s returned to PACE as a teacher, using his techniques as a painter and sculptor to expose a new generation of students to the intersection of art and science.

His first encounters with the program began at Evangeline Elementary School in 2001, where he was enrolled in the French immersion curriculum. His teacher was Fabienne Biasiolo, and artist Deborah Simeral came in each week to teach art through PACE.

Simeral and Guidry ran into each other at AcA last year while working on the student art exhibit. “We were upstairs hanging the show, and this young man walks in,” she recalls. She introduced herself and he asked her if she had worked at Evangeline. “He said, ‘You were my art teacher.’ I said, ‘Maybe it’s time for me to retire.’”

Simeral started teaching with what was then known as the Acadiana Arts Council’s Bright New Worlds artist-in-residence program in the 1980s. At the time, she had a gallery on Garfield Street in Downtown Lafayette where she taught weaving, spinning, basketry and dying. When PACE was started in 1999, she was tapped to train for that program.

The impact of PACE and its reach — more than 71,000 students over two decades — will be on full display at AcA and in Downtown Lafayette on Saturday, April 13.

Her commitment as a PACE teacher consisted of 45-minute sessions in the classroom four days a week, intertwining art with science, math, English and social studies. She remembers the lesson she taught Guidry’s class that day. “It was based off of a famous Picasso piece, and we were talking about the good you and the bad you,” she says.

Guidry also remembers that class. “People were talking about masterpieces and saying I’m going to make a masterpiece,” he says. “Picasso has been a big influence on my work since she [Simeral] introduced him to us. The way he abstracts … there are so many pieces where my composition has mimicked that on a subconscious level.”

As a young child, Guidry’s preferred medium was drawing — and he hated color. “I just liked to draw in black and white,” he says.” I was able to write my name before I got to kindergarten because I would sign my artwork.”

Madame Biasiolo, who teaches pre-K at Myrtle Place Elementary now, translated Simeral’s art lessons from English into French for the students; she’s an art enthusiast herself. Guidry recalls being inspired by her drawing of a rainforest. Biasiolo would laminate all of the students’ artwork into a book at the end of the year for them to take home. Guidry’s cover was white paper decorated with a black sharpie.

He stayed in the French immersion curriculum through eighth grade and then went on to the Academy of Information Technology at Carencro High School. Art was more of a hobby until he decided to major in Visual Art with a focus in painting at UL Lafayette. That’s when he began including color in his work — and really channeling Picasso for his masterpieces.

After graduating in 2017, Guidry was looking for a daytime job to supplement his art and music while also working at AcA. Education Director Bree Sargent told him about an opening with PACE, which stands for Primary Academic Creative Experiences.

“A PACE art class is a place [where] a student can succeed,” she says. “Having the opportunity to be successful at something can just change everything for you. The numbers are staggering when you look at what using the arts in education can do for those kids.”

PACE was initially developed with support and training from The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It’s an offshoot of the Bright New Worlds program Simeral was originally involved with and a result of the AcA’s 40-year partnership with the Lafayette Parish School System and UL.

The impact of PACE and its reach — more than 71,000 students over two decades — will be on full display at AcA and in Downtown Lafayette on Saturday, April 13. Highlighting the work of students in Lafayette Parish public schools in visual and performing arts, the Student Arts Expo is marking its 10th anniversary. Sargent says student art showcases used to be held at the end of the year inside the schools but eventually moved to AcA. “We were confined to a stage here, and it was several more years before we actually moved out onto the streets,” she says. “Every year, we add a new element to it.”

Because of the 10-20-40 anniversaries, this year’s expo is bigger than ever. In addition to work from the 21 participating elementary schools in the PACE program to be displayed in the AcA ArtHouse upstairs, the center is also debuting a retrospective show PACE 20: Twenty Years of Teaching Artists in the Main Gallery. Forty of the artists who, like Simeral and now Guidry, have taught in the PACE elementary school program will have their work on display through June 8.

Student performances in the AcA theater and on the Vermilion Street Stage all day will include everything from the Acadiana High Jazz Band to theater scenes performed by students in the LPSS Talented Theatre Program. A parade kicks things off that morning at 10 a.m., and a new Community Mural Project in the afternoon is open to the public. Live painting by high school students, an arts market of student work and school exhibits at galleries and businesses throughout Downtown are also part of the celebration.

Self portraits by 3,500 students will line the expo route Downtown — a nod to the type of instruction that takes place in the classroom. “Self portraits are how we start off the program at the beginning of the year,” says Simeral. “We do them again at the end of the year, and that alone could tell us a little bit about how the students have improved in their capability.”

Guidry is still learning the ropes of teaching after a year and also brushing up on his French for classes like Madame Biasiolo’s, but he wants his students to learn about science and climate change through art instruction. “Right now, we’re doing coral reef and local lizards,” he says. “I try to emphasize that it’s humans that are changing the planet.”

His piece in the PACE 20 exhibit is a hanging sculpture made out of plastic bags. He plans to display it alongside his art portfolio with the black and white cover from Madame’s class at Evangeline Elementary.

“For Ben to have turned out to be a PACE artist is mind blowing,” says Simeral. “Ben is the product of PACE. I’m amazed I’ve had that much influence with so many kids.”

Student Arts Expo will be held in conjunction with ArtWalk on Saturday, April 13. Activities kick off at 10 a.m. at AcA and go through 9 p.m. Downtown.