Twenty years ago Renaldo Kuhler was an obscure scientific illustrator who pursued his work in a tiny, cluttered office at Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Because he was a reliable employee who turned out exquisite, intricately detailed drawings of snakes, fish, animal skulls and other specimens from the museum’s collection, his eccentricities — such as the snugly fitted, scout-like uniforms he designed and regularly wore — were tolerated and rarely questioned.
Brett Ingram, a co-worker at the museum for a few years, was curious enough about Kuhler to start asking friendly questions — about the uniforms and other conspicuously unusual characteristics. With a little prodding, Ingram eventually gained access to the extraordinary imaginary world that Kuhler had spent a lifetime creating in his mind and on paper.
Ingram, who now lives in Greensboro, left the museum in 1997 to become a documentary filmmaker. Having gained Kuhler’s trust, he started filming him and eventually produced a feature-length movie titled “Rocaterrania,” after the imaginary country Kuhler vividly rendered in hundreds of drawings he made over 60 years, along with related notes and other writings. The film was released in 2009, 10 years after Kuhler retired from his museum job. That same year saw the first exhibitions of Kuhler’s Rocaterrania drawings, most prominently at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum and New York’s annual Outsider Art Fair.
When Kuhler died in 2013, he left his trove of drawings, preliminary sketches, notes and other belongings to Ingram, who had gone on to teach filmmaking at UNC-Greensboro. Continuing to work with these materials, Ingram extended his documentation of Kuhler’s work to assemble a profusely illustrated book. Published late last year by Blast Books, “The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler” serves as a 265-page guide to Rocaterrania, an abbreviated biography of the artist and an exploration of his motives for creating this fanciful realm.
Ronald Otto Louis Kuhler, as he was originally named, was born in New Jersey in 1931, the only child of a German industrial engineer and his Belgian wife, who proved to be an abusive mother. Before Kuhler’s birth, the couple had emigrated to the United States, where his father (also an amateur artist) became known for his streamlined steam-locomotive designs.
Kuhler grew up in Rockland County, N.Y., and was forced to attend boarding schools until 1948, when his father retired and moved the family onto a remote ranch in the mountains of Colorado. Kuhler’s feelings of extreme isolation and displacement in that alien setting stimulated his adolescent imagination to create a private, fictional place that reflected his ideas, personal struggles and preoccupations. It would be an ongoing project for the rest of his life.
In many ways, as Ingram reveals, Kuhler never left Rocaterrania, which he envisioned as a small nation of eastern European immigrants located between New York’s Adirondack Mountains and the Canadian border. He drew and named many of its citizens and political leaders, who spoke their own language, inhabited their own distinctive kind of architecture, wore specially designed uniforms and followed an ethical code based on their ecumenical religious traditions.
Long before the term “steam-punk” was coined, Kuhler began creating an imaginary modern society that relied on gas lighting, hand-cranked telephones and iron boilers. He devoted many notebook pages to sketches and notes pertaining to Rocaterrania’s sewage and waste-recycling systems, designed to harness methane gas for use in energy production.
The drafting skills Kuhler developed in his elaborate images of Rocaterrania would eventually help him find work as an illustrator, although he was never formally trained as such. In the meantime he earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Colorado and worked for six years as an exhibitions curator for the Eastern Washington State Historical Society Museum in Spokane, where he legally changed his name to Renaldo Gillett Kuhler. He would spend most of his life in Raleigh, where he moved in 1969 to begin his job at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.
Ingram portrays Kuhler as a brilliant, irrepressible innocent — an unconventional thinker whose loquaciousness and compulsive honesty often made strangers uncomfortable. These tendencies were evidently tempered by shyness during Kuhler’s childhood and youth, when he suffered verbal and physical abuse by his mother and his schoolmates.
Emphasizing the relationship between Kuhler’s real life and his imaginary world, Ingram sympathetically highlights these aspects of Kuhler’s biography in order to help readers understand why he developed his extraordinarily rich fantasy life.
“Rocaterrania is not a utopia,” Kuhler told Ingram. “It is not a fairyland or dreamland. What it is, it indirectly tells the story of my life and my struggle to become what I am today. I am Rocaterrania, and my troubles within me and everything else, the events in my life.”
Some of the parallels between Kuhler’s life and Rocaterranian history are fairly obvious. For example, the imaginary country’s founding royal couple, Emperor August Phillippe and Mary Catherine, empress consort, are clearly based on his own parents. August Phillippe is described as a self-trained engineer, artist and designer who loved trains, especially steam engines, and Mary Catherine as a demanding wife whose husband catered to her every whim. Kuhler presents them as intensely class-conscious aspirants to power.
A number of Rocaterrania’s younger citizens were “neutants,” androgynous humanoids — neither male nor female — with whom Kuhler seemed to personally identify. Thumbtacked to the walls of his museum office and the small apartment where he lived were numerous drawings of these characters, invariably depicted wearing form-fitting, short-pants uniforms. A few years before Ingram met him, Kuhler began having such outfits custom-tailored to fit his own tall form, and he wore them regularly by the time Ingram began documenting his life and work.
Anyone who happened to cross Kuhler’s path would have quickly sized him up as an odd character. Many of us have been socially conditioned to dismiss and steer clear of such individuals. Fortunately, Brett Ingram didn’t let social prejudices override his persistent curiosity about his eccentric co-worker, and thanks to his efforts, Kuhler’s extraordinary work won’t go unappreciated.