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Remembering Raleigh's beloved artist Renaldo Kuhler



Renaldo Kuhler, a renowned visionary artist and longtime scientific illustrator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, passed away on June 2. He was 81 years old.

Born Ronald Kuhler in 1931, he grew up in the hamlet of Blauvet, N.Y., just north of Manhattan. By his teen years he'd survived an abusive boarding school and moved with his parents to a remote Colorado ranch. To deal with the intense isolation of that exposed western landscape, he conjured the sovereign nation of Rocaterrania, which he would document in drawings and writings for the rest of his life.

Nestled into the rocky terrain between Canada and New York State, the small country had its own detailed and turbulent history, and spectacular cities with unique fashions and customs. But Kuhler shared Rocaterrania with no one else.

That is, until filmmaker Brett Ingram took a job at the museum in 1996. Ingram began shooting footage in 1997 and released the documentary feature Rocaterrania in 2009. Since then, Kuhler's work, which he bequeathed to the museum, has had its days in the sun, showing at the Gregg Museum of Art and Design at N.C. State University, the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore and other notable venues.


Many visionary artists have created utopian realms in order to imagine themselves there to escape from a miserable or incomprehensible reality. It would be easy to read Kuhler's body of work that way, but it would be a mistake. Kuhler was completely socially and professionally functional. He was a crucial part of the museum for three decades. He held court at the 42nd Street Oyster Bar, where he assigned witty nicknames to all the other regulars, and his photograph remains prominently displayed. Kuhler was an odd fellow, for sure, but no hermetic Henry Darger. "Rocaterrania is not a utopia," he says in Ingram's film. "It is not a fairyland or dreamland. What it is 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's "neutants"—androgynous figures with pointed ears and athletic bodies—suggest sexual ambivalence. He never married, though he imagined such relationships within the Rocaterranian realm. Gendered characters seem to be an expression of fashion characteristics rather than sexual ones. But the prevalence of female characters in positions of Rocaterranian authority, albeit in decidedly masculine uniforms, indicates a deep interest in the feminine.


Raleigh residents knew Kuhler by sight. You'd see him walking along the road or waiting for a bus at the curb, wearing a self-styled uniform patterned after Rocaterranian dress: railroad cap, military jacket, shorts, a hand-carved bolo tie and high white gym socks. He looked like a rejected extra from a Civil War picture or an idiosyncratic Boy Scout. Kuhler would bring detailed, hand-drawn alteration instructions to a Raleigh seamstress to produce his garb.


Kuhler drew illustrations at the N.C. Museum of Natural History from 1969 to his retirement 30 years later. He left the state an archive of countless portraits of flora and fauna, and also contributed to many publications. Endowed with the objective precision that a scientific collection requires, his drawings are nonetheless devoid of clinical coldness—his snakes stare intently, as if watching prey; his yellowjackets pose with balletic symmetry; his dandelions have the sleepy shrug of morning dew upon them.


The imagined citizens spoke and wrote Rocaterranski, a language combining Russian, German, Yiddish, corrupted Spanish and Slavic vocabulary. The script is the love child of Cyrillic and Hebrew with some musical notation thrown in. Some letters resemble ornate peppermills and scimitars and are topped with diacritical triple dots and lightning bolts.

Rocaterranski is linguistically legit.


Ciudad Eldorado, the capital of Rocaterrania, is a cosmopolitan city that Kuhler called "a pocket-sized Paris." His street scenes show soldiers in European military dress, women in the fluted jackets and knee skirts of classic Hollywood, men in fezzes or the long coats and large hats of Hasidic Jews, and children who could be modeling J.C. Penney's back-to-school wear. Cities are connected underground by the same kinds of trains that Anna Karenina threw herself beneath.


Visionary artists commonly think in architecture. Technical renderings of spectacular buildings and detailed ornamentation imply complex societies and convey utopian ideals. Each major Rocaterranian city has a distinct architectural identity. In the eclectic Ciudad Eldorado, an amalgam of Europe's capitals, Modernist buildings stand next to Victorian ones. Issuskoye, the country's easternmost city, is characterized by experimental designs including fanciful, almost botanical, spires and towers.


Although Kuhler had an encyclopedic knowledge of classic cinema and designed the titles for one of the masterpieces of American experimental film, Stan Brakhage's Dog Star Man, the only films he made existed within the world of Rocaterrania. In the imaginary sci-fi film Rocketship MDX, a Rocaterranian spaceship is waylaid by meteors and lands on Mars. The astronauts find a Martian civilization near their crash site and befriend the native people. Indebted to Chesley Bonestell's dramatic depictions of astronomical landscapes, Kuhler's vision of the heavens was one of infinite freedom and beauty.

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