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.