The works of African American artist Roland Ayers
A couple years ago, I was browsing the art offerings at one of my regular auction houses when I spotted a watercolor saturated with the color orange. Among the dense bright color were a young black man walking along a sidewalk in front of a rowhouse, a woman in a window and another young man barely visible in a doorway.
The painting spoke to me because I love color and because the images were African American. I looked in the bottom right corner to see if it was signed and there was the clearly written signature “R. Ayers ’81.”
The first Ayers who came to my mind was the musician Roy Ayers, and I wondered if maybe he created art in his spare time. I bought the painting and went in search of R. Ayers.
Through Google, I found that he was an artist named Roland Ayers, but I didn’t learn much more about him. I hung the painting on a wall along a stairway in my house, and enjoyed it every time I passed by. But I didn’t hunt any more for Ayers.
Not too long ago, the same auction house had another of Ayers’ watercolors for sale, but I decided not to bid on it because it was too similar to the one I already had. Then, a friend told me that Ayers was a Philadelphia artist and still lived in the city. I was intrigued again.
So, I headed back to Google. To my surprise – and utter disappointment – an auction house that I sometimes frequent had a sale in October that included a large lot of Ayers’ watercolors; ink drawings of a hunger project, nudes, an athletic competition and more; posters and several abstract pieces. There was even a photo that may have been the artist himself. The bid sheet only listed him as “African American Philadelphia artist.”
How had I missed this auction? I saw some lovely pieces that would’ve looked good on my wall – along with a few that appeared a bit obtuse.
The artwork sold for $25 to $400, with most in the $200 to $350 price range.
My search also uncovered a little more information about Ayers, some of it from a book I recently bought about printmaking at Philadelphia’s Brandywine Workshop, where artists have come for the last 30 years to create original prints.
Ayers was born in Philadelphia in 1932 and got a bachelor’s in fine art degree from the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts), according to the 2004 book “Three Decades of American Printmaking: The Brandywine Workshop Collection” by Allan L. Edmunds and Louise D. Stone.
He exhibited in group shows at the African American Museum in Philadelphia (2002), Boston Museum of Fine Arts (1975), Studio Museum of Harlem (1973), New York Cultural Center (1973), Whitney Museum of American Art (1971) and the Philadelphia School District and Museum of the Philadelphia Civic Center (1969).
I also found two references that gave me pause: One was a biographical sketch that featured a bronze sculpture called “Texas Trail Saddle” (1995) attributed to an artist named Roland Ayers. The bio listed the same birth year and the Whitney exhibition, and identified him as an abstractionist.
The other was a short mention of a Kansas artist identified as Roland Ayers who painted for the Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration, which gave artists a means of earning money during the Depression and the country an appreciation for American art. It noted that he had exhibited at the Studio Museum.
Ayers was born in 1932, and the FAP ran from 1935 to 1943 when he was first a baby, a toddler and then an adolescent. One site noted that states would “borrow” another’s artists during that time. I don’t believe that was the case here: Philadelphia’s Roland Ayers wasn’t likely painting murals in Kansas as a child.
I still haven’t learned as much as I’d like about Ayers. I’d love to know more.
Update: I was eventually able to interview Roland Ayers’ wife, Sheila Whitelaw Ayers, about the artist, his works and his life. He was suffering from Alzheimer’s at the time. He died of complications from Alzheimer’s on May 18, 2014.