Monthly Archives: October 2011

Onto the Canadians and Scottie Wilson

Scottie Wilson

If you know who Scottie Wilson was, you may be as surprised as I to learn that he is described as a Canadian outsider artist. I discovered this when I searched the Anthony Petullo collection for Canadian content, and there he was.  In fact, there is an exhibit catalogue (1989) from the Dunlop Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan. (BTW:  this 58-page catalogue is listed on Amazon for $339 – I’m not kidding! – and I bought mine for $20 directly from the Dunlop Gallery.  A sucker is born … how often?)

Like all outsider artists, Scottie took a circuitous route to creating his art. Details of his early life are somewhat sketchy, but George Melly’s biography enlightens us a bit. We know that Louis Freeman (Scottie) was born in London in 1888, moved to Glasgow, and left school at age 8 to sell newspapers and patent medicines on the street. He served in WWI and it is believed he deserted the Black and Tans in Ireland because he could not, in good conscience, carry out their orders. Nothing else is known about Scottie until he turned up in Toronto, Canada 13 years later, in the 1930s. Shortly after he started drawing, he changed his name to Scottie Wilson – maybe to mark the change of direction in his life, perhaps to avoid detection by military/immigration officials, or to conceal his Jewish heritage.

Scottie scratched out a meagre living by selling various things in a Toronto junk shop. He collected fountain pens, which he sold in his shop or stripped for the gold. His life changed while doodling with one of his fountain pens one day.  Scottie said:

 I’m listening to classical music one day – Mendelssohn – when all of a sudden I dipped the bulldog pen into a bottle of ink and started drawing – doodling I suppose you’d call it – on the cardboard tabletop. I don’t know why. I just did. In a couple of days – I worked almost ceaselessly – the whole of the tabletop was covered with little faces and designs. The pen seemed to make me draw, and them images, the faces and designs just flowed out. I couldn’t stop – I’ve never stopped since that day.

Indeed, Scottie did not stop drawing until his death in 1972, some 37 years later.

Clyde Jones and his critters

Just when I thought the fun in North Carolina had come to an end my lovely friend, Becca, said that I had to see Clyde Jones’ crazy sculptures before I went home.

We got in the car one afternoon and drove for about an hour or more. I had no idea where we were heading, but we ended up in a tiny (dot-on-the-map) town called Bynum, NC. It was actually less than “a town” – more like a sprinkling of houses along a country road. There was a general store that was open only occasionally and a small public building, and that was it. Driving through Clyde’s ‘hood, I noticed that just about every house had a wooden sculpture in front.  Many sculptures were reindeer, festooned with lights. It must be quite a cheerful scene in the dark days of winter.

The creatures

We parked the car and walked towards Clyde’s wee house.  The front porch was papered with photographs of people who had stopped by for a visit and the front and back yard hosted a menagerie of sculptures. There were reindeer, giraffes, pigs, alligators (lots),  horse-like critters with saddles, and Santa. All were glorious fantasy shades of pink, turquoise, green, blue, and polka-dots.  We took a quick tour of the yard when Becca suggested that we knock on the door and say hello. (Canadians don’t do that type of thing. We’re more inclined to drive by, maybe twice, and look without pointing. We would never knock on a stranger’s door just to say howdy-do. ) But I managed to sidle up to the front porch while she knocked on the door.

A minute went by without any movement from within. Then the door cracked open and the gentleman himself – Clyde Jones – stood at the door. (A dark cavern loomed behind him and my mind turned to the three horror films I have seen in my life.) However, Clyde was very gracious and delighted that we had dropped by to see his critters. We were invited to spend some time exploring his collection.

We amused ourselves in the garden before Clyde came out to meet us. Then a neighbour dropped by to join the gathering. Becca is a graduate student with a keen interest in NC history and sociology. She was engaged in an intelligent conversation with Clyde et al while I stood there mute, dripping with sweat, wondering how to get out of the blistering sun. As far as I could figure, it was about 180 degrees Fahrenheit that day, but they didn’t seem to notice. They thought it was kind of amusing that we northerners can’t stand the heat.

Clyde began his wood work many years ago after an injury at the mill. He is very proud of his sculptures, and apparently refuses to sell them. As I understand it, he will give sculptures to friends, but won’t sell them. He has been asked to sell sculptures to NY buyers, but isn’t interested in that market. He laughs at the absurdity (to him) of taking his sculptures to an exhibit in NYC. But I can understand why everyone would like to take a creature-sculpture home with them. They are charming, amusing, quirky, and certainly every child’s vision of “good art.”

Clyde seems happy enough just making his sculptures out of found pieces of wood and does it “just because he likes doing it”.

I wondered how I would get a sculpture home to Vancouver if I became “a friend” of Clyde Jones. How would I describe my bulky package to the Customs Officers? We left with a promise to drop by again, and mail him a photo to pin to his porch.  Driving out of Bynum, I was impressed by the number of friends that Clyde has. If I ever visit Clyde again, I’m going to take note of which neighbours don’t have a sculpture, and ask him for the details of the dispute.

Kuhler IS Rocaterrania

Renaldo Kuhler

I had the privilege to meet Ronaldo Kuhler on my visit to Raleigh, NC to see the Annie Hooper collection (see earlier blog). A screening of the film, Rocaterrania, was scheduled for showing at the Gregg Museum of Art and Design one evening in August. I was looking forward to meeting the man who created this alternative world.

When I arrived, Renaldo was sitting in a wheelchair, visiting with guests in the exhibit room. I introduced myself and he responded with, “Nice teeth!” I’m not sure if Miss Manners has any advice on how to reply to this greeting. Does one say, “You, too!” or “I’ll tell my dentist!” or … what? I simply thanked him and complimented him on the exhibit. When it was time to view the film, he sat next to me and we had a pleasant chat before the film started. I was curious to know what this man was “really” like and, in particular, how deeply he identified with the residents of Rocaterrania. (Read: did he live in this world or that?)

Renaldo was very interested to learn that I am from Canada; the country of Rocaterrania straddles the border between the northern USA and Canada, somewhere around Ontario. He had questions about the Canadian political scene, and we discussed politics for a short while. (He is not happy about the current government in the USA.) Surprisingly, he is reasonably well-informed about Canada, something that doesn’t happen often in the southern States. Renaldo hadn’t seen the film for a couple of years, and was delighted to see himself on screen. He laughed at the amusing things he said, and confirmed (out loud) random statements he made on film. He nudged me when he got to the part about the location of Rocaterrania, and I felt rather proud that Canada had allowed his country to co-exist with mine.

One of the highlights of the evening was having dinner later with Renaldo and the film-makers. Renaldo was in fine spirits, and downed more glasses of Canadian whiskey than I could count. He patiently answered all of my questions about Rocaterrania (there are very few cars; it is a democracy, etc.), posed for many photographs, sang me Rocaterrania’s national anthem, and commented several times on the shorts that our waitress was wearing (all shorts are sexy – I guess that’s why he wears them).

Several things stay with me:

I asked him what it felt like to be famous, and he said he enjoyed it with dignity and humility. And his father would not believe it if he were alive.

I asked him if he was the character “Peekle” in Rocaterrania. He stated, “No. I am Rocaterrania. His stories help him make sense of his life. For example, the nicest landlady he ever had shows up as a kind and loving character in Rocaterrania. The people who were unkind to him in the past meet their fate in his own country, where he makes the rules and controls their destiny.

Renaldo has found an in genious way to make sense of his own life. It is not so weird or incomprehensible. It is rather sobering.

More photos of Renaldo Kuhler and scenes from Rocaterrania can be found on Brett Ingram’s website: Bright Eye Pictures.

Welcome to Rocaterrania

Photo from Ingram

My interest in the world of Rocaterrania – and its creator, Renaldo Kuhler – began in 2009 when I saw the film, Rocaterrania, at the Vancouver International Film Festival. I had seen a few films about outsider artists, like Henry Darger, and the trailer suggested that Kuhler’s work would be just as intriguing. I was not disappointed.

Seventy-nine-year-old Renaldo Kuhler was the scientific illustrator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for most of his life. As the story goes, filmmaker Brett Ingram was taken on a tour of the museum, where he was introduced to Renaldo. He recognized him as the man he had often seen walking around Raleigh.

Renaldo is hard to miss. He is over 6 feet in stature and wears a “uniform” that he designed himself – navy blue walking shorts, a military-looking jacket or vest, a neck scarf, and a cap. His white beard and hair, tied back in a pony-tail, complete the picture. He looks like a very large boy scout, and he is very particular and proud of his outfit.

In addition to admiring Renaldo’s scientific illustrations, Brett noticed some unusual drawings pasted on Renaldo’s office walls. There were many drawings of the same male character (I later learned that his name is Peekle), and a few other intriguing architectural drawings. Over the years, Brett came to know this intensely private man, and his imaginary world called Rocaterrania. Until then, Renaldo had not shared his world with anyone. Years later, Renaldo agreed to let his world be recorded on film.

Who is this remarkable man?

“Ronald” grew up in what he describes as a dysfunctional home. His father, Otto Kuhler, was a well-known industrial designer of American railroads. The family moved from New York to a remote farm in Colorado when Renaldo was a young boy. He hated the isolation of the farm and his mother’s expectation that he would grow into a strapping young ranch-hand. Renaldo, however, preferred to stay in his room and construct his imaginary world called Rocaterrania. His parents discouraged his writing and drawing and, as Renaldo says, life was very difficult for him. His move to college didn’t provide much relief, as his classmates endlessly mocked and tormented him.

He graduated with a degree in history, changed his name to Renaldo, and by chance, ended up as the natural science illustrator at the museum in Raleigh, NC. It seems there he found freedom from everyone else’s expectations and he could dedicate himself to creating his fantasy domain.