ROLAND AYERS was one of those kids who seemed to be studiously bent over his schoolbooks in class, but in reality was hard at work drawing airplanes.

Although he did well in school, Roland loved airplanes, and his schoolbooks were filled with drawings of all kinds of planes. His airborne pen-and-ink work dates back to the first grade, and his wife, Sheila Whitelaw Ayers, has drawings with his name written in a child's scrawl at the bottom.

Of course, Roland went far beyond airplanes in a long and distinguished art career, creating what one critic called "magically surreal" works in pen and ink, watercolor, gouache and collage.

His art has been displayed around his native Philadelphia and in Belgium, Holland and other distant venues to the acclaim of connoisseurs and the cognoscenti.

Roland Ayers, who also taught art and wrote poetry, an Army veteran and a man who epitomized the qualities of a gentleman in his relations with his family and the public, died Sunday of complications from Alzheimer's disease. He was 81 and living in a nursing home but had lived for many years in West Mount Airy.

To the detriment of the art world, African-American artists were too often neglected when retrospectives were assembled or the curriculum of art schools developed.

"It made him angry," his wife said. "He had a lot to say about that subject."

Roland felt so strongly about the neglect that he lived in Holland and Greece in the '70s, feeling that his work was more accepted in Europe. His art is in the collections of galleries in such cities as Brussels and Rotterdam.

Locally, he exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum, Philadelphia Art Alliance, Woodmere Gallery, Socrates Perakis Gallery, Free Library and others. He also exhibited at the Studio Museum of Harlem in New York.

His work is in numerous private collections. When artwork and furniture belonging to the legendary empressario and civil rights leader Samuel Evans was auctioned in 2007, an abstract by Roland Ayers was among the offerings.

Roland enjoyed teaching, and taught art at the Allens Lane Art Center, where he met his wife, who was its director, and his alma mater, the Philadelphia College of Art, now the University of the Arts.

One of his most dramatic pieces is the "Tree of Life," a finely detailed drawing that he created for his wife on her 60th birthday in 2000.

"I watched this grow," his wife told Sherry Howard, who writes the blog Auction Finds. "He would sit on the sofa at night and do these meticulous strokes. It's a magnificent piece. He's showing the earth. He's showing how the tree has all these roots of life."

"Basically, I'm a poet," Roland once told an interviewer. "I even consider my artwork to be poetry. I deal a lot in the reality of dreams."

He was a follower of the self-awareness teachings of the Indian writer Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Roland was born in Philadelphia, the only child of Alice and Lorenzo Ayers. He attended the Joseph E. Hill Elementary School and Roosevelt Middle School. He graduated from Germantown High School and entered the Army.

The Army had no appreciation for his artistic talent and made him a cook. He served in Germany for two years.

After his discharge, he attended the Philadelphia College of Art, from which he graduated in 1954.

Roland was manager of the Friends of the Free Library Book Store in the '80s. In 1992, he married Sheila Whitelaw, who came to the U.S. from England in 1960.

Roland also was a jazz aficionado and amassed a huge record collection.

"He was an absolutely amazing man," said his wife. "He was gentle, kind and sweet. He was a true gentleman who always saw the good in people."

Besides his wife, he is survived by a son, Roland Ayers Jr.; two stepdaughters, Jill and Robin Whitelaw; and one stepgrandchild.

Services: Will be private.