Over the course of 60 years, Renaldo Kuhler (1931-2013) created the imaginary land of Rocaterrania. The artist imagined and drew every facet of a fictional society and country. Aside from Kuhler’s day job as a scientific illustrator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, he created a world of his own, going so far as to invent a religion, language, alphabet and even an independent movie commission. Brett Ingram created a feature-length documentary in 2009, Rocaterrania, and now, for the first time an extensive book featuring 430 illustrations has been published by Blast books. Here, with kind permission, we show some of Kuhler’s drawings and publish Ingram’s introduction.
One wet autumn day in 1994, my car broke down and I had to take the city bus to get to my studio in downtown Raleigh. Several stops along the way, a flamboyant giant who eventually would alter the course of my life boarded the bus.
He perched on the front seat by the door and with a booming voice commenced an impassioned monologue extolling the virtues, joys, and privileges of public transportation. The automobile had made a pigsty of America’s paradise! Public transportation preserved natural resources and reduced air pollution. Travelling by bus was more sociable than riding alone in a car. He spoke to no one in particular, and that seemed just as well with the driver and fellow passengers who looked away uncomfortably, occasionally stealing a voyeuristic glance.
Six-foot-four and stout, with a bushy white beard and ponytail, he wore a custom-tailored uniform of indeterminate origin: a sleeveless Kelly green suit jacket with wide, black, notched lapels, epaulets, and brass buttons, a matching suit vest, yellow flannel dress shirt, a fleur-de-lis Boy Scout neckerchief, and tight-fitting knee-length shorts (“cotton-blend lederhosen”). His epaulets and neckerchief slide appeared to be hand-carved and bore matching insignia, a singular design integrating arrows, stars of David, and geometric Navajo patterns. White knee socks with Scottish garter flashes, black wingtips, gold wire-rim spectacles, and a plain black baseball cap completed his ensemble.
His accent was nearly as inscrutable as his outfit. Was he German? British? A New Yorker? His diction was old-worldly, formal, and bursting with boyish enthusiasm for the seemingly mundane. It was as if he had just dropped in from another planet and was enthralled with everything he encountered on Earth. Indeed, he was from another place. But where?
At a stop near the capitol, with a wave and a cheerful “Good to see you fine people,” he disembarked. I felt compelled to follow him, but it was cold and drizzling, and I had work to get to a few stops farther away. Who was that guy? Would I ever see him again?
Two years later, I was hired to develop media for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. On my first day, my supervisor took me and two other new employees on a tour of the place. Coming to a small annex building filled with taxidermy, mammal skeletons, and jars of preserved specimens, he announced, “And here is our scientific illustrator, Renaldo Kuhler,” and he opened the door to a cluttered office the size of a walk-in closet. Turning to look up from the microscope at which he had been studying the skull of a pygmy shrew was the man from the bus!
Renaldo was entirely self-taught in scientific illustration, he said, and he attributed his draftsmanship to his ability to see the world in detail. “Most people look, but they don’t see,” he said. As Renaldo continued, explaining the craft of subtly depicting in ink on paper those defining qualities of a specimen that a photograph cannot capture, my eyes were drawn to a number of illustrations thumbtacked about his office.
Rendered with a clinical precision bordering on the obsessive were drawings of androgynous humanoids in form-fitting uniforms, like Renaldo’s attire, of indeterminate origin. Labeled with the names “Eutie,” “Beulis,” and “Peekle,” notated with anatomical dimensions and dates of revision, combined with handwritten bus schedules, grocery lists, and important phone numbers, these drawings clearly originated outside the purview of Renaldo’s job description.
My co-workers seemed uncomfortable in Renaldo’s presence, much like the bus passengers two years earlier, and they seemed not to notice or care about the peculiar illustrations that had riveted my attention. Renaldo brushed off my question when I asked what they were. “Oh, they’re nothing, really. Just doodles. They’re actually neutants, that’s what they are. They’re neither men nor women. I just wanted to see how well I could draw human anatomy.” Human anatomy? No, I thought, there’s more behind those drawings than that. Much more.
Conversing with Renaldo required a great deal of patience. Repetition, digression, non sequiturs, neologisms, and inside jokes shared only with himself pervaded his rapid speech. Direct eye contact was rare, and he had difficulty deciphering figurative speech or reading subtle facial expressions. Sarcasm escaped him entirely. He took people literally at their word, as if he were reading a transcript of their speech. He frequently referred to himself using the royal “we” and “us” because “it’s comforting, like maybe someone else is there,” he explained, and he talked aloud to himself because he “once read in Reader’s Digest that people who do have greater success working out their problems.”
He affectionately nicknamed friends and co-workers with monikers such as “The Churchillian,” “The Frontiersman,” “The Colorado Gold Miner,” “Banana Pie,” “Civil War Girl,” “The Kovacsian,” “Rocket Ship,” “Chuck Wagon Girl,” and “Tough Backyard Boy.” Mine was “Paste” for a couple of years, then “Spike” ever after, for reasons never made clear.
In turn, Renaldo was often characterised as “eccentric,” the catchall descriptor for behaviour deemed outside the norm. The truth is that Renaldo was unabashedly, unapologetically, incorrigibly himself as a moral imperative, an expression of the purest form of honesty. Artifice or guile seemed beyond him, and he was largely incapable of detecting it in others. His was a life in which, at every turn, he had fearlessly chosen to be himself, letting the chips fall where they may—and without hurting anyone else in the process. No small feat.
I left the museum in 1997 to pursue documentary filmmaking. Between other projects, I followed Renaldo around with a camera, not knowing where it would lead but trusting his story would be as compelling to others as it was to me.
His studio apartment reflected a deficiency in housekeeping, to put it kindly. His living/bedroom was a repository for everything he’d accumulated since moving there in 1969, all of it smelling of pipe tobacco; his kitchen was a veritable museum of the history of canned food. His television was always tuned to Turner Classic Movies, the volume so loud it could be heard from the street.
His obsession with neutants was even more apparent at home than at work. Illustrations were taped to his walls, plastered throughout his diaries, and adorned the cover pages of tax preparation booklets addressed to his accountant. A mannequin stood in one corner, remodeled with paint and laminated paper into a life-size rendering of Peekle, Renaldo’s favorite neutant.
When I asked about a small, faded painting on his mantel, he picked it up and said, “We call this Janet Lingart. She’s a famous dancer in Rocaterrania.”
I’m no geographer, but I was pretty sure there was no Rocaterrania on any world map, not even prior to the dissolution of the USSR. The neutants, it turned out, were also from Rocaterrania, and Renaldo’s curious uniform, one of dozens like it hanging in his closet, was the official dress of the Rocaterranian Conservation Corps.
The gate had cracked open. Once inside, I would discover a strange and beautiful garden that had existed in secrecy all along, right under the noses of his family, friends, and co-workers, the roots of which lay in his teenage years in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Trapped on the rustic KZ Ranch in a small valley 9,000 feet above sea level, with bickering parents who’d never understood him in the first place, a young Renaldo sought escape from his isolation by inventing an imaginary country. He named this rocky terrain Rocaterrania, after his boyhood home of Rockland County—and he’d been illustrating its history ever since.
The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler by Brett Ingram is published by Blast Books. Text and images courtesy of Blast Books.