Renaldo in the Land of Rocaterrania
Through Sept. 3
Gregg Museum of Art & Design
N.C. State University

Brett Ingram’s film, Rocaterrania, will be re-screened at the Gregg Museum on Saturday, Aug. 20, at 6 p.m.

Surely everyone has a secret place in her imagination she likes to visit, but it would be hard to find one more inimitable than the world created by Renaldo Kuhler.

During the 30 years he worked as a scientific illustrator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Kuhler spent many a workday peering through his lab microscope while rendering intricate technical drawings of insects, reptiles and other biological specimens. These drawings appeared in reference materials, scientific journals and museum exhibit displays, but in his spare time, his lifelong project has been the creation of an elaborate imaginary world. He’s drawn this world in fascinating detail, in hundreds of drawings and notebooks.

A sample is now on view at the Gregg Museum of Art & Design, only the second time the images have ever been exhibited. It’s also a homecoming event as the first exhibition of Kuhler’s personal work in Raleigh. The drawings divulge a sweeping narrative set in a fictional sovereign nation dubbed Rocaterrania, populated by Eastern European-like immigrants with their own style of dress, language (Rocaterranski), alphabet, architecture and religion. Inhabiting the country is a large cast of political and military leaders, dignitaries, entertainers, celebrities, satirical figures and commoners, all with fully mapped-out biographies and histories.

Yet for all its extraordinary complexity, Kuhler began his project simply because, as a teenager, he needed friends. So the imaginary violinist Augustin Valtovin, whose portrait is the earliest work in the show, became Rocaterrania’s first citizen.

Though it’s an invented world, the geographic foundations of Rocaterrania are quite real. The physical features are modeled on the region of Fort Covington, N.Y., located on the St. Lawrence River on the Canadian border. The name Rocaterrania is a transliteration of Rockland County, the suburban New York community where his immigrant German father and Belgian mother settled and where Kuhler spent his boyhood. The impulse to create may have been stoked early: His father, Otto, designed steam locomotives in the 1930s and ’40s.

Otto Kuhler was fascinated by the myth and independent spirit of the American West, and when he retired, he relocated his family to a cattle ranch in Colorado. The shy and introspective Renaldo struggled with the isolation of this new environment, which was made more difficult by his parents’ authoritarian rule. He developed his own imaginary world through drawing as equal parts coping mechanism and emotional necessity. A sample sketchbook page from this time pointedly notes: “The ability to fantasize is the ability to survive.”

Kuhler’s expertise as a primarily self-taught illustrator is undeniable, and the layering of information and depth of thinking in the work is remarkable. Urban infrastructure, the symbiotic workings of metropolitan and rural environments, transportation networks, governmental rule, even concepts of sustainable development and farming have all been thought through. Rocaterrania is a 20th-century kind of place (albeit stylistically flavored with Victorian overtones) with a history that mirrors the messy events of the last century.

The drawings flesh out the narrative in a variety of ways: official portraits, urban streetscapes, rustic countryside views, religious settings, family pictures, nightclub scenes, marches and parades. While his drawings from the early 1950s are characterized by loose watercolor washes, straightforward delineation of form and simplified modeling, later drawings possess elaborate hatching patterns and a confident, meticulous technique that succeeds in combining whimsy with a highly attuned sense of detail and theatrical narrative.

The story is also a personal one. Kuhler has said that his creation “is not a utopia. It is not a fairyland or a dreamland. It directly tells the story of my life and my struggle to become what I am today. I am Rocaterrania … my troubles within me and everything else, the events in my life.”

Kuhler kept the Rocaterrania drawings a closely held secret from his co-workers and acquaintances, fearing misinterpretation or dismissal. That the drawings are now public knowledge is due to the work of documentary filmmaker Brett Ingram. While filming a video at the museum in 1996, Ingram noticed a few of Kuhler’s personal drawings pinned up in his workspace. Intrigued, the filmmaker began shooting a short film on the side for the National Geographic Channel, focusing on Kuhler’s technical expertise in scientific illustration. It would take a few years before Kuhler revealed Rocaterrania to Ingram, and his short film turned into the feature-length documentary film Rocaterrania, which was released two years ago. The film has since screened around the world, paving the way for Kuhler’s drawings to be displayed for the first time, in 2009, in a year-long exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, curated by Gregg Museum director Roger Manley.

Who among us hasn’t daydreamed? An essential element of our humanity is the ability to expand on our existence and explore via the imagination. For me, the most poignant moment in the film is one in which Kuhler pauses to reflect on his life’s project: “When I think of Rocaterrania, I think of [how] each person’s a nation unto himself, but what he does with that nation is up to him.”