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ROLAND AYERS

Calligraphy of Dreams

WoodmereArtMuseum


Woodmere extends sincere thanks and appreciation to the William M. King Charitable Foundation and Robert and Frances Kohler for their support of this exhibition and catalogue.


ROLAND AYERS

Calligraphy of Dreams

CONTENTS

Foreword by William R. Valerio 3 No Solid Ground: The Art of Roland Ayers by TK Smith, Guest Curator 7 Selected Poems 17 A Clear and Courageous Voice by Patrick Terenchin 23 Roland Ayers: A Collector’s First Encounter by Rob Kohler 25 Remembrance by Sheila Whitelaw-Ayers 27 Plates 30 Selected Chronology 60 Archival Materials in Woodmere’s Collection 70 Works in the Exhibition 88

July 10–October 24, 2021

WoodmereArtMuseum


Paul Robeson, 1987 (Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2021)

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FOREWORD WILLIAM R. VALERIO, PHD

The Patricia Van Burgh Allison Director and Chief Executive Officer

From my first view of the work of Roland Ayers,

confronting the hard subjects of his time and

looking at his prints with Allan Edmunds in the

the complexity of sexuality. He possessed innate

Brandywine Workshop and Archives in 2011, I knew

figurative capability and an understanding of the

this was an extraordinary artist I wanted to get to

drama that comes from manipulating the illusion

know better. As Brandywine approaches its fiftieth

of space on a flat surface. As a visual artist, poet,

anniversary, we are honored to be showcasing

and activist, Ayers applied his craft to an ongoing

works made there by Ayers, including his portrait of

exploration of the subject he deemed most relevant

Paul Robeson, Passage (page 56), and Originating

to his life: an ambitious grappling with the spectrum

(page 58). Ironically, I wasn’t aware at the time

of cultural resonances—some ancient, some

that among the high points of Ayers’s career had

contemporary—that speak to Black experiences in

been a solo exhibition at Woodmere in 1977. Just

the United States.

recently, the Museum was entrusted with the artist’s archives, and there, in a neatly organized folder of handwritten and typed papers, is correspondence with Woodmere’s staff about the content of the 1977 checklist and the layout of the show. The current exhibition, Roland Ayers: Calligraphy of Dreams, is the Museum’s second focused presentation of Ayers’s work, and this is an artist to whom we are committed.

Ayers’s 1986 portrait of Paul Robeson, created at the Brandywine Workshop and Archives, recently entered Woodmere’s collection thanks to the generous underwriting of Rob Kohler and the late Frances Kohler. The work demonstrates the breadth of the artist’s vision as well as the degree to which Philadelphia itself is an important subject. The city’s chapter of Robeson’s life is one of injustice. Having achieved wide recognition as one of the

Ayers was a Philadelphian through and through, his

greatest bass-baritones of the twentieth century,

practice emerging from training at the Philadelphia

as Hollywood star, and as a Shakespearean actor,

College of Art (now the University of the Arts) and

Robeson was blacklisted by the federal government

the inspiration of graphic artists such as Benton

for his political activism. His passport was revoked.

Spruance, Jacob Landau, and Jerome Kaplan,

Although he fought back, Robeson would live

who was a mentor and lifelong friend. His work

his final ten years in relative obscurity, under his

represents a distinct, Philadelphia-based mode

sister’s roof at Walnut and 49th Streets in West

of illustrative storytelling: observed from life, but

Philadelphia.

stylized; detailed with linear complexity, but never fussy; engaged with the current moment, but seeking to make broadly meaningful statements about the human experience. He found his voice as an artist in the 1960s and was unabashed in

Although we don’t know, it is possible that Ayers and Robeson knew one another. Drawing from wellknown photographs, Ayers portrays Robeson as a figure of physical, intellectual, and creative strength: a man of letters and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate ROLAND AYERS: CALLIGRAPHY OF DREAMS

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Tower of Babel, 1969 (Gift of Sheila Whitelaw, 2021)

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of Rutgers College and Columbia University, a

Foundation also stepped forward, making it possible

football star, a leader of people, and an actor in

to build a robust program linking the exhibition to

costume as Othello on stage at New York’s Shubert

jazz performances. We also thank Warren Oree,

Theatre. Robeson’s was the longest-running

the Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble, and LifeLine Music

Shakespeare production in Broadway history and

Coalition. Patrick Terenchin, a gallerist and collector

his interpretation is remembered for downplaying

who is deeply committed to Ayers, has also been a

the courtly intrigues inherent in the plot and for

collaborator in this and other endeavors, and again

foregrounding a truth he found in Shakespeare

we express our gratitude. The show would not

and that he articulated in frequent interviews, that

be possible without loans from Rob, Frances, and

as an outsider, the Black man is crushed by the

Patrick, and from the collection of Judy and Louis

structures of European society. If he were to land

Tanner Moore, who are the Museum’s friends and

in Philadelphia today, Robeson would be offered an

frequent collaborators.

honorary chair at every institution of higher learning in the city, but such was not the case in the U.S. of the 1960s. Ayers offers a holistic view of Robeson’s biography, with past and present merging around the edge of the circular composition, where the windows and doors of West Philadelphia are juxtaposed with depictions of African sculpture; Robeson’s father was an enslaved man of Igbo descent who attained his freedom by escape. There is more about Robeson to be teased out of the imagery of the lithograph, but suffice it to say that the power of Ayers’s portrait lies in its ability to offer an experience that resonates in history and is felt as art.

Finally, it is hard to find words sufficient to convey Woodmere’s admiration for guest curator TK Smith. Of the many young curators we have worked with in recent years, TK is clear standout. He threw himself into the universe of Ayers’s work with an intensity of purpose that was tempered by nuance and deep thoughtfulness. His writing is beautiful, and his words in this catalogue and in the accompanying episode of our Diving Board podcast represent what I believe to be the defining interpretation to date of Ayers’s voice as an artist. Woodmere hopes that this project is the first of many collaborations with TK, and that Ayers has found in him the champion that his work needs. I have no doubt that

This exhibition grew out of Woodmere’s long-

TK’s career will be impressive, and I am confident

standing relationships with several individuals.

that Ayers will be part of his journey.

Sheila Whitelaw, the artist’s widow, has been continuously supportive of the Museum’s effort and a partner in every way, especially in entrusting us with the documentation and archival materials of her husband’s career. Woodmere is honored to have become the center for the study and ongoing appreciation of Ayers. Robert and Frances Kohler have been our angels, helping us build our holdings of the artist’s work and generously supporting this exhibition. The William M. King Charitable

As always, Woodmere’s staff shines with professionalism and creativity. Rachel Hruszkewycz and Laura Heemer organized all aspects of the exhibition and drove our process in every respect. Rick Ortwein designed the installation and made the presentation of the work elegant and beautiful, and Hildy Tow has developed an impressive array of education events and opportunities for learning. Thank you to everyone.

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Pleasure Function, 1972 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

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NO SOLID GROUND: THE ART OF ROLAND AYERS TK SMITH

AMERICAN DREAM

Black figures: from the tree line

Walking in weariness and fear:

Slow night tales

Portions of dreams

Refusing to digest.

Eyes and faces

Which crystalize

From plants and flowers

Black figures form

Form the calligraphy of dreams

 Roland Ayers

Roland Ayers (1932–2014) understood himself to

into beautiful, fantastical, and horrific creatures

be an artist and a poet. These two inseparable

formed from blossoming flowers, wooden doors,

vocations help define the intuitive ways he

and Black flesh. Between each stanza tension

manipulated language and ink. His unpublished

grows, the intensifying need to know what comes

poem “American Dream” offers a concise reading

next. Are these suspended Black figures the stuff of

of his artistic practice in his own words. The poem

fantasy or nightmares?

slowly unravels imagery, revealing that which is most associated with his drawings: the Black figure untethered, suspended. This body is formed from the visions of his dreams. The artist often dreamed in fragments, allowing the illusive visions to merge

Roland Ayers: Calligraphy of Dreams features work produced between 1959 and 1989, surveying the artist’s progression toward his most noted medium and style: intricate, surreal ink on paper drawings.

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Bull Fish, 1971 (Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2021)

Born and raised in Germantown and trained at the

their intimate nature reveals the endless capacity

Philadelphia College of the Arts (now the University

of the human psyche rendered indecipherable by

of the Arts), Ayers lived and worked in Philadelphia

specificity. His pictures sprawl intuitively toward

at a time when the art world had yet to make space

a culmination that only he could discern, inviting

for Black artists. His career remains insufficiently

viewers to interpret and find meaning in the work

researched and his name is absent from the

for themselves.

discourses of Philadelphia art communities and the greater discourses of twentieth-century American artists. Master draftsman, painter, printmaker, educator, and poet, Ayers created exceptional work mined from within.

To engage Ayers’s work is to engage unfixedness, where there are multiple meanings, and more than one thing can be true at any one time. The artist employed a stream of consciousness drawing method, allowing whatever flowed from his mind

At the root of Ayers’s oeuvre is a deep introspection

to live on the page. He welcomed spontaneity,

that is then visualized on paper. He believed his

revealing the skill of an open mind and a steady

dreams to be windows into his unconscious, a way

hand. One drawing could be made in weeks, while

to access his full psychological and spiritual selves.

others took years to complete. This made for fluid

Drawing was a form of meditation, an opportunity

renderings that demonstrate the artist’s embrace

to ruminate on his thoughts and emotions. Though

of both visual harmony and dissonance, of beauty

Ayers was a trained artist with acute art historical

and the grotesque. Ayers’s drawings can overwhelm

knowledge, his yearning to understand his own base

with the sheer amount of detail. Densely populated,

desires, as well as his experiences as a Black man

they become more complex and disorienting the

navigating the world, shaped his unique style and

longer one looks. Akin to Hieronymus Bosch’s

symbolic language. Though close examination of his

Garden of Earthly Delights (created between 1490

work can uncover the social, political, and cultural

and 1510), Ayers’s work is visually stimulating

climate of the time, his imagery nevertheless

and symbolically rich. Bosch’s triptych employs

remains opaque, resisting a singular or reductive

surrealist and fantastical imagery inspired by

interpretation. His compositions are based on his

nature to narrate the biblical fall of man through a

memories, emotions, and banal passing thoughts;

cacophony of pleasure and pain. Several of Ayers’s

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Tall Grasses: Vision of the Voodoo Child, 1970 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

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Untitled, 1973 (Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2021)

drawings are in direct conversation with The Garden

radio station, allowing the music to move him. An

of Earthly Delights, as he engages the fall of man

aficionado of the genre, he employed the methods

motif to explore his own interests in knowledge,

of call and response, as well as improvisation

morality, and sexuality.

to render his drawings. His figures intuitively

Music was an important part of Ayers’s life and work. The artist amassed a large jazz collection that included the records of Charlie Parker, Freddie Hubbard, and Cannonball Adderley. When he drew, he would listen to WRTI, Temple University’s jazz 10

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form and flow into one another, intertwining like melodies and countermelodies that swell and subside. He sometimes paid homage to his favorite artists and songs by folding their names into his compositions. Hesitation Blues (1968), Swing (1972),


and Windjammer (1984), for example, are also

He explored the built environment of his youth

song titles, offering a sonic lens for interpreting the

to better understand himself. Doors, windows,

compositions’ mood and cadence. In Tall Grasses:

dormers, and porches appear within the levity

Vision of the Voodoo Child (1970) the sound of

of his vast suspended universes. Architectural

music is illustrated through the blowing of French

elements blend harmoniously with nature,

horns. Given a physicality, the sound appears to

beautifully amalgamating the manmade and natural

drive the swirling movement of the composition,

environments. These brick and wood portals gave

while simultaneously constructing a city in the sky.

him access to a place and time that he cherished

For Ayers, stream of consciousness drawing offered the opportunity to experience and express freedom. With ink on paper he could create new realities informed by the personal and communal histories of Black people. Within the unconscious these histories are made malleable and organic, allowing him to transform them and see beyond the present. The artist’s surrealism is anchored in the smoke-like levity of his subjects: flying figures, animals, and architecture. Scale, perspective, and depth shift as seamlessly as his thoughts, allowing him to build small two-dimensional universes he called “mindscapes.” His aerial atmospheres visualize the fluidity of thought and emotion and reoccurring symbols act as “ghosts” that haunt

and idealized. Confronted with the devastating impact of white flight on the neighborhood throughout the 1960s, Ayers’s understandings of race, culture, class, and community were traumatically uprooted. Conjured through memories and dreams, he deconstructed, and reconfigured Germantown throughout his drawings in a frantic attempt to preserve his home. Germantown as he knew it, and therefore his childhood self, is memorialized and mourned throughout the artwork. The street names and address numbers of his neighbors’ homes reoccur. Unknown faces tucked behind windows and peeking through open door frames could be his childhood friends, his family, and sometimes himself.

him. His beautiful and ominous depictions of flying

Witnessing the natural progression of Ayers’s

Black bodies may be a reference to the legend of

drawing offers a clue to understanding his affinity

the Flying Africans. This legend tells of a group

for the round frame. Throughout the 1950s his

of Igbo peoples that were captured and brought

work became increasingly expansive, taking on

to the Americas via the transatlantic slave trade.

a near panoramic quality that seemed to crowd

Faced with enslavement, they simply took flight

the square frame. As his practice developed, the

and returned home. “Home” bears double meaning,

artist increasingly experimented with the borders

representing the shores of West Africa and the

created by the paper’s edge, moving toward a

afterlife. The precarious nature of home—as place of

more organic vignette format. He embraced the

comfort, safety, mourning, and myth—exacerbates

surreal and incorporated multiple perspectives

the tensions within these compositions, inspiring

and nonlinear, fragmented visual narratives. By

contradictory emotions.

the late 1960s, Ayers primarily produced drawings

Though Ayers traveled the world, it was always with the intention of returning to Germantown.

and etchings, creating intricate small-scale works within round frames. The round frame is most likely a hybridized art historical reference to the tondo, ROLAND AYERS: CALLIGRAPHY OF DREAMS

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Time Shelters Memories: Doors, 1975 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

characteristic of the Renaissance period and the Buddhist mandala, a geometrical device for prayer and meditation. The stylistic blending of Eastern and Western influences makes visible Ayers’s internal negotiation between his formal education and spirituality. The round frame may also reference the symbol of the third eye, a conceptual eye found at the ajna (brow) chakra representing access to higher consciousness. Ayers used the symbol as a logo for his commercial work and it was a

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consistent motif throughout his drawings. Ayers’s extensive art historical and literary knowledge is most evident in his meticulous renderings of plants, humans, and animals. The figures in his earlier works are contrastingly round and squat or lean and lanky illustrations with pronounced hatching. Similar to the work of Yellow Submarine (1968) illustrator Heinz Edelmann, these figures combine the fantastical characteristics of art nouveau with the patternicity of psychedelia.


Ancestor Worship, 1971 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin) Readiness, 1971 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

Through the 1960s Ayers experimented, producing

wondrous body is encrusted and adorned with an

squatter figures and faces with distinct West

armor of seashells from which her arms and legs

African features and sculptural forms. His hatching

extend. His rendered forms bare the musculature

and crosshatching techniques become more varied,

and skeletal layers, playing with transparency in

creating intuitive and undulating patterns across

ways that read as scientific and speculative of their

the body as evidenced in Ancestor Worship (1971).

inner workings. He returned to the drawings of old

By the 1970s, Ayers’s figures fully shifted from

masters, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Francisco

the gestural to the anatomical, the culmination

Goya, to develop his own unique renderings of the

of years of study of the human body and its

Black body as a sublime marvel. Incorporating his

mirrored relations to nature. In Readiness (1971),

interest in Eastern spiritual traditions, his figures are

Ayers depicts a Black woman whose skin appears

adorned by their chakra centers and patterns of

a mixture of flesh and protective fish scales. Her

flowing energy made visible on Black skin. ROLAND AYERS: CALLIGRAPHY OF DREAMS

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Erotica: A Drawing, 1974 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

Be it blatant or covert, Ayers’s work engages the

subjects are not just the perverse fantasies of a

erotic. A highly sexual being, the artist boldly

heterosexual man. For Ayers, the feminine figure

depicted the intimate relationships between bodies,

was a manifestation of divinity, sexual desire, and

ranging from sexual intercourse to passing embrace.

home, as well as a visualization of his internal self.

He depicts couples, suspended, entangled, in

Though he identified as male, he understood gender

acts of primal desire and love. His nude figures

as a social construct and found within himself both

are rendered with penis, testicles, breasts, and

masculine and feminine energies. Within his dream

vulvas fully visible. Ayers often depicted expansive

journals the artist recorded that he appeared in his

nude forms that can tantalize viewers, but it is

own dreams in various forms that intersected racial,

more imperative that they depict the aesthetic,

gender, and corporeal boundaries. He sometimes

psychological, and philosophical desires that drive

drew figures joined together in impossible

human connection. This is most clearly illustrated

configurations or as an amalgamation of severed

through the Black woman’s body, a symbol

limbs, suggesting the inseparability of man and

that permeates his oeuvre and defines his style.

woman—of the multiple sides of the self.

Appearing objectifying at first glance, his female

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The most significant motif found throughout

surviving journals, sketchbooks, and handwritten

Ayers’s practice is the tree of life. For the artist, this

notes, we can illuminate his significant impact as

grounding symbol came to represent spirituality,

an artist and educator. Roland Ayers: Calligraphy

history, family, and the interconnectivity of all living

of Dreams offers a point of departure for future

things. The sprawling roots and branches speak

research by situating Ayers as a twentieth century

to the pervasiveness of life—plants, animals, and

master draftsman whose conceptual explorations

humans—thrusting toward unknown skies. Ayers

were steeped in psychological and spiritual

died in 2014, leaving behind a body of work that

introspection. Ayers’s posthumous return to

included countless drawings, prints, paintings,

Woodmere offers a glimpse into his expansive

and ephemera, spread across continents. From his

unconscious, where there is no solid ground.

UNTITLED

Time experiences, leafy limbs escaping

Windows, memory alive, expanding like

The life-tree-water of the ancestors

Roland Ayers

ABOUT THE AUTHOR TK Smith is a Philadelphia-based curator, writer, and cultural historian. Most recently, Smith co-curated the 2021 Atlanta Biennial at the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center. His writing has been published in ART PAPERS, Burnaway, and the Monument Lab Bulletin. He is currently a PhD candidate in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware, where he researches art, material culture, and the built environment. He received his MA in American Studies and his BA in English and African American Studies from Saint Louis University.

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Organ, 1982 (Gift of Sheila Whitelaw, 2021)

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SELECTED POEMS Roland Ayers understood himself to be an artist and a poet. Within the expansive collection of archival material held at Woodmere Art Museum there are poems written in the margins of journal pages, typed on slips of paper, and scribbled on receipts from his extensive travels abroad. Roland Ayers: Calligraphy of Dreams takes its title from “American Dream,” (reproduced on page 7) a poem that captures the tension between the artist’s lived experience as a Black man in the United States and the potential of transcendence within his dreams. The following poems from the archival collection offer another lens on Ayers’s work and conceptual explorations. Manipulating language as he manipulates ink, he offers us another fantastical and surreal world to explore. —TK Smith

RITTENHOUSE STREET

“Open the night,

Police never found him.

let me in,”

Rittenhouse Street corner

sad wandering spook

and Familari’s Bar.

crying through blood

“Let me in night;

sliced from an old dice game:

let me in!,” Ghost said,

Rittenhouse Street.

to see bad man Scull

Spook said, “You cheatin’, nigger!”

stretched out like Jesus

and his best friend

where another bad man

carved him up over five cents

assaulted him by car

and walked over his body

for foul mouthed meanness.

to New York City. May 26, 1989

ROLAND AYERS: CALLIGRAPHY OF DREAMS

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JASMINE

UNTITLED

Jasmine

Flying over

why is that word

meadows

a picture of concupiscence

and streets

from yesterday?

of the city, side by side

Look at the juxtaposition

snatches of Osceola (Indian Lord),

of flower against fruit

karma of my love,

flowering,

on a full-moon April night

a diamond shape

in our Lord nine-teen-hundred

fluxing yesterday’s

and eighty-one;

green islands green.

the grip took hold;

Other subjects—

acid zoot-shooters (suiters)

white churches

(shoot) [shot] Leslie Young from their breath.

with olive windows

Oh god of the mountain,

and pink domes,

Twelfth and Diamond Streets:

elderly sunsets—

Thelonious nights feed the young

are born from the hand

in the summer,

of hashish

in the summer.

on a night that lasted all day long.

Summer 1966, Greece

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April 14, 1981


SUGAR RAY ROBINSON

Sugar Ray, an artist

You were like an Emperor gladiator,

with paint brushes of skin and bone

yet a slave.

who destroyed the enemy by hand:

Behold: our Champion is Black

20th century Black –slave gladiator

but cannot take the throne,

taking on the world

slick hair in place under the false Crown,

of his desperate childhood,

descendent of a tribe

shoeshine boy,

Feared and murdered from its station of

dancer, en-ter-tain-er, no doubt, wealthy (as long as the kingdom allowed it).

dignity? Blues showed in his grace Movements like an Eloin time crafted to serve.

Dancing, hitting, feinting beautiful Brown Sugar

November 29, 1971

fighting the world. How we needed you. How we loved-hated you.

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HOW CAN WE BE How can we be many places at one time? with lover’s eyes on three continents

UNTITLED

Seeing, close observation without the intervention of thought, neither adding nor taking away, neither labeling or naming, judging, comparing, analyzing. The observer is the observed.

(peering across tables) And slowly walking down a hallway in the morning we calmly place words with candles; simultaneously we pass a young couple brushing into seats at a Sunday evening cinema.

September 5, 1981

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May 19, 1984


Earth Masses Moving, 1979–80 (Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2021) ROLAND AYERS: CALLIGRAPHY OF DREAMS

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Journey of the Earth Mother, 1972 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

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A CLEAR AND COURAGEOUS VOICE PATRICK TERENCHIN

Ten years ago, I encountered the work of Roland

balance as the inevitable result. Harmony, beauty,

Ayers and I was compelled to become an instant

and elegance are in perfect balance with chaos, the

collector. I was ecstatic to discover work of such

grotesque, the flamboyant. There is space for all of

power, but equally shocked to discover that so few

these things in Ayers’s world.

people knew anything about the artist. This started an amazing journey that led me to discover more examples of Ayers’s work, and meet people who could provide a framework and context to help me understand it. This ultimately led to the happy discovery of people and institutions who wanted to tell his important story. But initially it was the clear and courageous voice of Roland Ayers alone, speaking through masterfully rendered images, that turned me into a passionate collector. The voice spoke of pain, triumph, struggle, change. It suggested processes of birth and rebirth. Ayers’s work is about the human condition, but specifically it tells a story of the Black experience in the U.S.

The specificity of Ayers’s images stays with us—his personal vocabulary of faces, architecture, animals, plants, and sometimes words. In the golden age of Pop Art, Ayers began populating a private universe with recurring symbols and motifs drawn from his personal life. His diaries and other writings confirm this process. The world we see in an Ayers drawing is precisely the one he inhabits, in the course of his day and in his dreams. To look at a drawing is to see a fantastic universe informed by what some might consider an ordinary existence. The courage and self-worth implied in the creation of this work, by this man, at his moment in history is staggering.

during a period of political and social upheaval.

It is a responsibility to own a collection of Ayers

Every drawing is a document, providing access to

drawings. After ten years, I have made little

the interior world of a person who is processing

headway in interpretating or contextualizing them.

events and emotions in real time. The work is a

Like an endless love, the works are as mysterious

synthesis and refinement of this struggle. For these

to me now as the day I first encountered them. My

reasons, it is essential that we preserve, study, and

deep gratitude to Woodmere for organizing this

share Ayers’s legacy with a wider audience so he

exhibition and presenting an opportunity to share

can take his rightful place in art history.

this artist’s work with the community. It will take the

As with a printed paragraph, a drawing by Ayers can’t be read at a glance. The eye settles on an arbitrary place it calls the starting point.

talents of the Museum’s staff and the contributors to this catalogue to help us understand the magnitude of Roland Ayers’s artistic legacy.

Immediately our gaze is ferried along by a stream of fantastic images. Pictures are connected and flow like words in a sentence. They often support or give birth to one another. Sometimes they are in conflict. But in every example, we are presented with

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Patrick Terenchin is an art collector and dealer based in Hudson, NY. For over 20 years he has sought to discover and collect marginally known artists of historical importance in an effort to reevaluate reputations and careers. His gallery, Terenchin Fine Art includes a broad range of American artists representing key movements of the 20th century.

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Cataclysm, Rebirth New World, 1968 (Museum purchase, 2015)

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ROLAND AYERS: A COLLECTOR’S FIRST ENCOUNTER ROB KOHLER

I had my first glimpse of a work by Roland Ayers

event. But what narrative associations are we

on the balcony gallery at Woodmere. Around a

meant to bring to the scene? It’s a joyous crowd;

bend I could see a drawing, Cataclysm, Rebirth

the feeling is one of freedom and liberation from

New World, that instantly caught my eye. “Now

confinement. Is it a biblical narrative of the creation

there’s something special,” I thought. I walked

of an Edenic new world? A repopulating of a post-

over to take a good look, which confirmed that

deluge world from Noah’s ark? Perhaps a replay of

first impression. This artist’s drawings were indeed

a narrative of transportation and enslavement, a

something special. I wanted one—for a collector, a

coming home or to a better place? Or some small

sure sign. Later, back home, online research led me

event in Ayers’s life that triggered larger thoughts?

to drawings for sale at Patrick Terenchin’s gallery

We don’t know and probably are not meant to. And

in Hudson, New York, of which I bought a good

that’s another aspect of Ayers’s work that makes it

group of four. I also got to wondering, what was

special. Whatever the artist had in mind, he made

it in Ayers’s drawings that registered almost at a

his drawings to be unsettled and indeterminate. He

glance as special? It was two things, I decided: first,

cedes control. And in nudging viewers to become

its intricacy and quality of line—Cataclysm had for

co-creators of meaning, Ayers turns what is

me the look of an old master etching; and, second,

uniquely personal into something that we all can, in

the orderliness of its abundant detail. The drawing

some way, make our own.

had a definite point or narrative—that one could see at a glance: not what it was, but that there was one. That’s what drew me from afar.

The author is grateful to William Valerio, Ruth Fine, and Gretchen Dykstra for their editorial assistance

Closer study revealed what looked like a ship or

with this essay.

building of some sort, its door forced off its hinges and life spilling out into a surrounding void (if not a big bang, then a little one). There were nude women. There were musicians with keyboards and wind instruments—lots of both, affectionately drawn and clearly favorites—as well as masks and costumes. There were animals of various sorts: horses and phantasmagoric, toothy monsters and Boschian chimeras. What exactly these cohabitants were up to was unclear. The explosive overall design—figures and activities moving forcefully from the open door to the picture’s outer edges— suggests that all are spilling forth in a singular

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Robert Kohler is an emeritus professor of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught from 1973 to 2006. In the mid-1980s he and his wife, Frances Coulborn Kohler, then managing editor of the leading journal of history of science, got seriously interested in art collecting, focusing exclusively on edgy, or “passionate,” figuration by living artists. Since that time they have assembled a collection that has been or will be donated to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and to Woodmere. Robert currently serves on PAFA’s collection committee and its board of trustees.

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African Fruit, 1970 (Gift of Sheila Whitelaw, 2017)

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REMEMBRANCE SHEILA WHITELAW-AYERS

First, and foremost Roland was a devoted family man, a fine father to his son and devoted husband and son to his mother. He was a Germantown native, but called Amsterdam his second-loved city. As well as being a brilliant artist, Roland was a poet, diarist, and an avid reader, from Proust to W. E. B. Du Bois to Jiddu Krishnamurti. I’ll never forget the time when the phone rang, and it was James Baldwin hoping to speak with Roland. Roland had read just about everything Baldwin had written. This phone call was in the 1990s, and my belief is that Roland and Jimmy had come to know each other in the 1970s, which were the most active years of Roland’s exhibiting. It was the

Houses in Germantown, 1962 (Courtesy of Sheila Whitelaw)

1970s, for example, when his work was acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and when he had his show at the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York—and in Philadelphia at Woodmere. That

manner of supporting other artists and individuals who were on a journey like his own.

he was in dialogue with Baldwin is a part of an

He was immersed in his art—he had no choice about

artistic journey that was powerfully cerebral and

that—and enjoyed life. He had eclectic taste in

had a literary dimension. In art, poetry, and life, he

movies: loved Gremlins, hated Gone with the Wind.

strove to understand what it means to be Black in

Loved Judy Garland—he could relate to the tragedy

the United States, and how that reality is tied to a

in her art in part because there was tragedy in his

difficult-to-fathom history of oppression. His art is

own life, associated with the difficulties of his son’s

so much tied to his interior thoughts and dreams—

mental illness.

and nightmares. He didn’t shy away from the toughest subjects, including the Middle Passage or the ghosts, he would say, of those who were killed in the Jim Crow South. If he were alive today, he wouldn’t be surprised that we as a society are still working toward a resolution that may never come.

We used to host dinner parties at our Victorian apartment in West Mt. Airy on a regular basis, where discussions would be about politics, art, and more art. He also loved to wash the dishes after such get-togethers, which thrilled me to no end.

It should also be said that he wasn’t a competitive

He loved Saturday Night Live and the Johnny

person, and he viewed his work as a graphic

Carson show and watched while drawing or

designer for art, literary, and cultural events as a

painting in his home studio.

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Roland was an expert on jazz. He could hear two

I always encouraged him to continue with his

bars of any given piece and he knew the artist and

brilliant art. I treasure all his works, especially Tree

the album. We used to attend jazz recitals and

of Life, which was a birthday gift to me. He is sorely

concerts as often as possible.

missed by all who loved him. But his work lives on

Roland was loved by all who knew him. A gentle

for people to enjoy.

sweet soul of a man.

UNTITLED

You were the focus of the magic

You walk ahead

I watch you and create my images

of you

The sky is overcast and low over the avenue

of trees

That seem a deep forest, a magic place

cool yet sultry

November 7, 1996

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Born, raised, and educated in London, Sheila Whitelaw came to the United States in 1960. She is a past executive director of Allens Lane Art Center, the Chester County Art Association, and the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia, and former chair of the Alliance of Friends. After a change of career, she worked as manager of Pat King’s boutique in Manayunk and Free Reign Boutique in Conshohocken. She is currently a sales associate and stylist at Scarlet Begonias boutique in Flourtown. She has two daughters, Jill and Robin, and one granddaughter, Ashley.

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Tree of Life, 1985 (Courtesy of Sheila Whitelaw) ROLAND AYERS: CALLIGRAPHY OF DREAMS

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PLATES

1959–1969

The Emperial Message, 1959 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

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Fleeing Goddess, 1960 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

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History Tree, 1968 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

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Hesitation Blues, 1968 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

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Untitled, 1968 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

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Biological EvolutionRevolution Series, 1968 (Gift of Sheila Whitelaw, 2017)

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Two Flags, 1968 (Lewis Tanner Moore Collection)

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Untitled, 1969 (Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2019)

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1969–1979

Dreamboat, 1969–71 (Courtesy of Robert and Frances Kohler)

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Astrological, 1970 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin) ROLAND AYERS: CALLIGRAPHY OF DREAMS

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Long Tall Sally, 1973 (Gift of Sheila Whitelaw, 2021)

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H. Rap Brown, 1970 (Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2021) ROLAND AYERS: CALLIGRAPHY OF DREAMS

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Mechanical Horse, 1969-70 (Gift of Sheila Whitelaw, 2017)

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Our Home, 1971 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

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The Ghetto, 1971 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

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Black Music, 1970 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin) ROLAND AYERS: CALLIGRAPHY OF DREAMS

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Anthem, 1972 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

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Two Is One, 1972 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

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Swing (Previously Lady Swing), 1972 (Courtesy of Robert and Frances Kohler)

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The Bird Told Me (Who Told You?), 1972 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

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Spring, 1972 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

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Rooftops, 1975 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin) ROLAND AYERS: CALLIGRAPHY OF DREAMS

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Astral Ribbon, 1976 (Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2019)

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Transformation, 1977 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin) ROLAND AYERS: CALLIGRAPHY OF DREAMS

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1979–1989

River Earth Flowing, 1979–88 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

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Untitled, 1984 (Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2021)

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Passage, 1987 (Museum purchase, 2015)

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Untitled, 1986 (Museum purchase, 2017) ROLAND AYERS: CALLIGRAPHY OF DREAMS

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Originating, 1987 (Gift of Brandywine Workshop and Archives, 2015)

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Orgasm, 1989 (Courtesy of Robert and Frances Kohler)

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SELECTED CHRONOLOGY

1932

1954

Born July 2 to Alice and Lorenzo Ayers; the

Graduates from the Philadelphia College of Art

family lives in the Germantown neighborhood of

(now the University of the Arts) with a bachelor of

Philadelphia.

fine arts in art education.

1945

MID-1950s

Graduates from the Joseph E. Hill Elementary

Joins the US Army, serving in Germany as a cook

School

for two years.

1950 Graduates from Germantown High School

Joseph E. Hill Elementary School Class of 1945 Record Book

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Students at the Joseph E. Hill Elementary School were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. Ayers listed “Artist” as his future profession.


Ayers’s US Army portrait and dog tags, 1950s

1961

1964

Group exhibition: 156th Annual Exhibition,

Group exhibitions: Invitational Regional Exhibition,

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts,

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; 139th

Philadelphia.

Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, February 20–March 15; Fifth Ultimate

1962 Solo exhibition: Everyman’s Gallery, Philadelphia Art

Concerns, Ohio University Gallery, Athens; Watercolor USA, Springfield Art Museum, Missouri, May 3–June 7.

Alliance.

1963 Solo exhibition: Socrates Perakis Gallery,

1961 Marries his first wife; the couple has one child, Roland Ayers, Jr.

2116 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

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1966 Travels to Europe, including Amsterdam and Greece.

1968 Solo exhibition: Socrates Perakis Gallery. Group exhibition: All Kinds of People, Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Washington D.C.

Ayers’s business cards, date unknown

1969 Lives at 373 East Church Lane, Germantown. Group exhibitions: 164th Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; AfroAmerican Artists 1800–1969, Civic Center Museum, Philadelphia.

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Invitation for solo exhibition: Roland Ayers at Gallery 3 1/2 and 4, Philadelphia.

1970 Designs the cover of the 1970–71 Model Cities Summer & Winter Recreation Program Report for the Philadelphia Department of Recreation. Group exhibition: Sixth Annual Small Sculpture and Drawing Show, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana.

1971 Group exhibitions: Recent Acquisitions, Philadelphia Museum of Art, January 19–March 31; Contemporary Black Artists in America, Whitney Museum of American Art, April 6–May 16.

1973 Solo exhibition: Mindscapes: An Exhibition of Watercolors and Ink Drawings by Roland Ayers, Studio Museum in Harlem, April 1–29. Report designed by Ayers for Philadelphia Department of Recreation, 1970–71

1975 Solo exhibition: Roland Ayers, Gallery 3 1/2 and 4, Philadelphia; the opening reception includes a performance by members of the Lower Egypt dance troupe. Group exhibition: Contemporary Drawing, Glassboro State Teachers College, New Jersey, May 25–June 7. ROLAND AYERS: CALLIGRAPHY OF DREAMS

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Poster for solo exhibition: Roland Ayers: An Exhibition of Gouache Paintings and Pen & Ink Drawings at the AfroAmerican Historical and Cultural Museum, Philadelphia.

1975–76 Group exhibition: Jubilee: Afro-American Artists on Afro-America, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, November 14, 1975–January 4, 1976. Designs a poster for the Painted Bride Summer Jazz Festival, July 10–11, 1976.

Designs a poster for Project Upgrade, a training program of the Greater Philadelphia Federation of Settlements and Temple University. Solo exhibition: Roland Ayers, Woodmere Art Gallery; reviewed by Kathy Curnow in the March/ April issue of Philadelphia Art Exchange. Group exhibition: Philadelphia Artists, Painted Bride Art Center, December 17–24; Ayers’s drawing Little

1977 Teaches Awareness and the Elements of Visual Design at Allens Lane Art Center, Philadelphia, January 14–February 13.

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Open Island is used as the illustration for marketing materials.


Poster designed by Ayers for the Painted Bride Summer Jazz Festival, 1976 ROLAND AYERS: CALLIGRAPHY OF DREAMS

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Brochure designed by Ayers for Visiting Artists ’78, Brandywine Graphic Workshop, Philadelphia.

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Invitation to the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia 20th Anniversary benefit dinner, designed by Ayers

1978 Designs a brochure for Visiting Artists ’78, the fourth annual printmaking workshop at the Brandywine Graphic Workshop, Philadelphia. Group exhibitions: Facets of Our Experience, AfroAmerican Historical and Cultural Museum (now the African American Museum in Philadelphia), January 11–February 11, 1978; Paper Work, The Drawing Center, 137 Greene Street, New York.

1978–79 Solo exhibition: Roland Ayers: A Personal Construct, Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum, December 2, 1978–February 12, 1979. Ayers and Sheila Whitelaw on their wedding day.

1984–86 Works as a tutor coordinator and tutor at the University of the Arts.

1985 Curates the exhibition The Elements of Design, Allens Lane Art Center.

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1987 Visiting Artist, The Brandywine Workshop and Archives

1987–89 Works as a proofreader at Colonial Penn Insurance.

1990–91 Works as a consultant for the City of Philadelphia Arts and Culture Program.

1991–99 Manages the Friends of the Free Library Bookstore.

1992 Marries Sheila Whitelaw. Group exhibition: Black Artists of the Delaware Valley, Free Library of Philadelphia,

Poster designed by Ayers for his lecture series titled Seeing: A Way of Knowledge, Understanding, and Learning, date unknown

January 24–February 23.

1994 Designs the invitation for the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia 20th Anniversary benefit dinner.

2001–2002 Group exhibition: Affirmations: Objects and Movements That Make Us Feel, African American Museum in Philadelphia, October 2001–September 2, 2002.

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ARCHIVAL MATERIALS IN WOODMERE’S COLLECTION

Woodmere Art Museum has acquired an expansive

are professionally staged photographs, career

collection of archival materials and ephemera

documentation such as resumes, exhibition

pertaining to the life and work of Roland Ayers.

materials, published articles, and lesson plans

Gifts of Sheila Whitelaw and Patrick Terenchin, the

written by Ayers himself, as well as newspaper

archive is a meaningful addition to the Museum’s

clippings, works by other artists, and meaningful

collection. In organizing Calligraphy of Dreams, the

life-objects, like his Army dog tags. There is the first

exhibition team relied on these primary sources,

chapter of the artist’s unfinished autobiography,

as well as the generous oral history provided by

along with his extensive notes detailing his family

the artist’s widow, Sheila Whitelaw, to create a

lineage as well as his childhood and adolescence in

narrative of the artist’s career. Ayers lived and made

the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia.

art in a time of racial segregation within major art institutions. Though he was an active member of the art communities in Philadelphia and abroad, the full extent of his artistic practice remains underresearched. We welcome researchers to access this collection at Woodmere to further scholarship and critical engagement with Ayers’s work.

Most pertinent to the work featured in Calligraphy of Dreams is the artist’s handwritten dream journal, with entries dating from 1979 to 1980. This extremely personal and revealing artifact documents the artist’s extensive psychological and spiritual explorations, his daily activities, and his own analysis of the imagery and symbolism within

The collection includes loose sketches and bound

his vivid dreams. In addition, his handwritten book,

sketchbooks containing architectural and figural

“The Creative Principle Ch’ien” reveals his immersion

studies, including one sketchbook he saved from

in Eastern philosophy, and stands on its own as a

9th grade, and another he purchased in Greece

work of art.

in 1966 and used through 1984. In addition, there

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DREAM JOURNAL, 1979–80 Fragments, August 4, 1980

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STAGED PHOTOGRAPHS The Archive at Woodmere includes a series of professionally staged photographs enlarged and printed in a darkroom.

Roland Ayers, date unknown, photographer unknown

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9TH GRADE SKETCHBOOK, C. 1946

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SKETCHBOOK PURCHASED IN GREECE, 1966–1984

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THE CREATIVE PRINCIPLE CH’IEN

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WORKS IN THE EXHIBITION All works by Roland Ayers (American, 1932–2014). The Emperial Message, 1959 Drypoint etching, 15 x 17 3/4 in Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Cataclysm, Rebirth New World, 1968 Pen and ink on paper, 19 x 23 in.

Untitled, 1968 Ink on paper, 30 x 28 in. Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Museum purchase, 2015

Fleeing Goddess, 1960 Gouache on board, 27 3/4 x 29 in. Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Hesitation Blues, 1968 Ink on paper, 12 x 8 1/2 in.

Tower of Babel, 1969 Gouache on board, 39 ¾ x 30 in. Gift of Sheila Whitelaw, 2021

Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Houses in Germantown, 1962 Gouache on paper, 10 1/4 x 12 1/2 in. Courtesy of Sheila Whitelaw

History Tree, 1968 Ink on paper, 10 1/2 x 8 in. Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

The Emancipated Hero, 1963 Oil pastel and ink on paper, 10 x 7 in. Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2021

Two Flags, 1968 Ink on paper, 16 x 12 in. Lewis Tanner Moore Collection

Homecoming, 1971 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin)

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Untitled, 1969 Ink on paper, 23 1/4 x 17 1/8 in. Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2019

Dreamboat, 1969–71 Ink on paper, 18 x 14 in. Courtesy of Robert and Frances Kohler


African Fruit, 1970 Pen and ink on paper, 8 7/8 x 8 1/2 in.

Readiness, 1971 Ink on paper, 5 x 3 1/4 in.

Untitled, 1973 Gouache on board, 31 x 30 in.

Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2021

Gift of Sheila Whitelaw, 2017

Astrological, 1970 Ink on paper, 20 1/2 in. diameter

Anthem, 1972 Ink on paper, 4 1/2 x 6 7/8 in.

Erotica: A Drawing, 1974 Ink on paper, 13 1/2 x 16 in.

Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Black Music, 1970 Ink on paper, 5 in. diameter

The Bird Told Me (Who Told You?), 1972 Ink on paper, 5 x 7 in.

Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

H. Rap Brown, 1970 Ink on paper, 5 1/16 in. diameter

Family, 1972 Ink on paper, 13 3/4 x 6 3/4 in.

Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2021

Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Tall Grasses: Vision of the Voodoo Child, 1970 Ink on paper, 22 1/8 x 17 3/4 in.

Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Rooftops, 1975 Ink on paper, 22 1/2 in. diameter Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Time Shelters Memories: Doors, 1975 Ink on paper, 23 x 29 in.

Journey of the Earth Mother, 1972 Ink on paper, 10 in. diameter Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Pleasure Function, 1972 Ink on paper, 7 x 7 1/2 in.

Ancestor Worship, 1971 Ink on paper, 5 1/2 x 3 7/8 in.

Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Spring, 1972 Ink on paper, 9 3/4 x 13 1/2 in.

Bull Fish, 1971 Ink on paper, 4 1/2 x 6 1/2 in.

Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2021

Swing (Previously Lady Swing), 1972 Ink on paper, 6 3/4 x 4 5/8 in.

Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Homecoming, 1971 Ink on paper, 4 1/8 x 6 7/8 in. Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Our Home, 1971 Ink on paper, 4 1/2 x 6 7/8 in.

Astral Ribbon, 1976 Ink on paper, 10 1/2 x 14 in. Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2019

Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

The Ghetto, 1971 Ink on paper, 4 1/2 x 5 in.

Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Transformation, 1977 Ink on paper, 29 x 23 in. Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Earth Masses Moving, 1979–80 Ink on paper, 18 in. diameter Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2021

Courtesy of Robert and Frances Kohler

Two Is One, 1972 Ink on paper, 5 x 7 in.

River Earth Flowing, 1979–88 Ink on paper, 22 3/8 x 15 7/8 in. Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Long Tall Sally, 1973 Ink on paper, 10 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

Organ, 1982 Ink on paper, 7 1/2 x 7 1/8 in. Gift of Sheila Whitelaw, 2021

Gift of Sheila Whitelaw, 2021

Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

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Untitled, 1984 Ink on paper, 7 3/8 x 7 1/2 in. Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2021

Tree of Life, 1985 Ink on paper, 27 x 27 in. Courtesy of Sheila Whitelaw

Untitled, 1986 Pen and ink on paper, 19 3/4 x 19 1/2 in. Museum purchase, 2017

Originating, 1987 Lithograph on white Arches paper, 26 1/2 x 22 in. Gift of Brandywine Workshop and Archives, 2015

Paul Robeson, 1987 Lithograph (Artist’s Proof), 20 in. diameter Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2021

Orgasm, 1989 Ink on paper, 11 1/2 x 11 1/4 in. Courtesy of Robert and Frances Kohler

The Emancipated Hero, 1963 (Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Robert and Frances Kohler, 2021)

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Family, 1972 (Courtesy of Patrick Terenchin) ROLAND AYERS: CALLIGRAPHY OF DREAMS

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Woodmere Art Museum receives state arts funding support through a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

© 2021 Woodmere Art Museum. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the publisher. Photography provided by Jack Ramsdale unless otherwise noted. Catalogue designed by Barb Barnett and Kelly Edwards and edited by Gretchen Dykstra.

Support provided in part by The Philadelphia Cultural Fund.

Front cover: African Fruit (detail), 1970 (Gift of Sheila Whitelaw, 2017)


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