The Secret World of Artist Renaldo Kuhler

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Renaldo Kuhler (1931–2013) was an imaginative, gifted, kindhearted, and wise gentleman. For 30 years starting in 1969, he was a scientific illustrator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, NC, but he secretly was also a visionary artist.

For 60 years, he illustrated and chronicled what he had begun as a lonely teenager—the convoluted imagining of a small nation he called “Rocaterrania” (named after Rockland County, his boyhood home).

The book designer Laura Lindgren first learned of his work in 2009 when she met filmmaker Brett Ingram, the author of this new book The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler. Ingram first met Renaldo by pure chance at a public bus in Raleigh in 1994. A friendship grew over time and Ingram became like the son Renaldo never had. In 2009, he completed a documentary film, Rocaterrania, about Renaldo, which Lindgren came upon the same year by chance. “Seeing the film, I instantly thought this could make a wonderful book,” she told me. I asked her to say more on the topic.

The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler
The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler

This is quite a discovery. There are others who’ve created their own fantasy art worlds, but this is incredible. Why has he been so under the radar?Like Henry Darger’s Realms of the Unreal, Renaldo’s Rocaterrania was a secret, elaborate world unto itself—although I think Renaldo’s is kind of more fun.

Darger was a recluse, and his artwork was discovered only after he died. Renaldo was not a recluse, but his Rocaterrania work was hidden for decades because he kept his personal work private. He was very proud of the thousands of meticulous scientific illustrations he made, but he did not talk about Rocaterrania, for the simple reason that he thought people would not understand it, or him. Renaldo was a true individualist with a highly idiosyncratic imagination … and fashion sense—he dressed in an outfit of his own design, a dark green scout-like jacket and tight-fitting shorts.

Renaldo would occasionally mention unfamiliar names to Brett, like Janet Lingart, Josef Wepka, or Lisa Hauffenstauffer. “Who’s that?” Brett would ask. “Oh, somebody in Rocaterrania,” Renaldo would say. Eventually, Renaldo revealed Rocaterrania to Brett, and by the mid-2000s Brett began making his film, which is really charming. For those in New York, there’s a special screening of it 6:30 p.m. Oct. 28, at Anthology Film Archives. Brett will be there for a discussion about all things Rocaterranian.

The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler
The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler

You’ve designed many catalogs and books, but this seems like something more special and risky than most. What went into your thinking of how to design this?It’s true, I have designed more catalogs and books than I can count. As with every book, I thought about what kind of design would naturally suit it editorially and visually. As I with all the books I publish at Blast Books, I also edited the text.

I structured the text into nine chapters, devised an insignia using different details from Renaldo’s art for each, and I used the old-fashioned convention of a brief chapter opening summary: e.g., Chapter Two, in which the great empress asserts her iron will. In the back of the book, I created a Kuhler chronology with photos of Renaldo from boyhood and on through his life, and with pages from extensive journals he handwrote and typed in his teenage years.

Renaldo loved type and did a lot of hand lettering, especially using Hebrew, Russian, and German Fraktur—he even created the titling used in a Stan Brakhage film, Dog Star Man—and he created an entire Rocaterranian alphabet. For the book jacket title, I customized a German Fraktur, and for the text, I chose the contemporary Serbian designer Nikola Kostic’s masterful Chiavettieri. It feels right for the story of Rocaterrania, but what’s more, Renaldo would surely love that Mr. Kostic is from Serbia. (“Black New Serbia,” “White New Serbia,” and “East New Serbia” are three of Rocaterrania’s nine provinces.)

I sometimes think of a book’s text typography as akin to the foundation supporting a house. In our book, fittingly for Rocaterrania, the house is quite a mansion, with 430 illustrations selected from about 1,000 scans from Brett’s Renaldo Kuhler Archive. It is indeed more special—and risky—than most big art books; I think it’s almost unheard of to take such a chance and publish a 264-page monograph on a virtually unknown outsider artist’s work. But where would we be if we didn’t take a chance when we can and publish what we believe has real merit?

The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler
The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler
The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler

What was Kuhler attempting to express through this kind of neo-fa world that he called Rocaterrania?Renaldo said it plainly himself: “Rocaterrania is not a utopia. It is not a fairyland or dreamland. What it is, it indirectly tells the story of my life and my struggle to become what I am today.”

Some of the neo-fa elements are more or less real-world historical events seeping into his Rocaterranian world. But most of the harshness in Rocaterrania represents oppression Renaldo felt from society and from his coldhearted Belgian immigrant mother, Simonne, and distant father, Otto, a German immigrant artist and accomplished designer of streamlined trains. Creating Rocaterrania was Renaldo’s way to find his way in the world and to poke fun at it—and even to get back at his mother (see the demise of Old Madame Scragglynose at the hands of neutants!). As Renaldo said, “the ability to fantasize is the ability to survive.”

To be sure, Renaldo was thoroughly anti-fa and was all for the freedom flourish as a nonc
onformist, to be accepted—and, one would hope, even loved for one’s individuality.

The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler
The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler

Do you think it is a satire of or a homage to the dystopian world?I think it’s mostly a really sincere reflection of Renaldo’s frustrations, hopes, and desires. But the story is definitely knowingly amusing, absurd, wry, and sometimes satirical: for example, late in the history of Rocaterrania a former garbage collector, Ajax Gombardo, becomes premier of Rocaterrania. Gee, maybe our next American president … Oh, never mind.

Actually, the more you think about Rocaterrania, the more our real world and Renaldo’s imaginary land mirror each other, historically, and today. Catalonia’s bold move for independence from Spain could be an episode straight out of Rocaterrania. And real people, such as the oppressive Ike Eisenhower, much despised by the Rocaterranians, occasionally appear in Rocaterrania; Captain Josef Wepka bears a striking physical resemblance to Richard Nixon.

Renaldo Kuhler
Renaldo Kuhler

What was your own response to seeing this for the first time?I was astonished! I loved the fullness of Renaldo’s imaginary nation and its inhabitants—sexy women, tyrants, peasants, and the neutants Peekle, Eutie, and Beulis—he believed so completely in his characters that he even made some illustrations that he claimed they drew. It’s a sustained imaginary world as cockamamie as our own, politically and philosophically, lovingly brought to life in pencil, ink, acrylic, and watercolor over the better part of the man’s lifetime.

Talking about making illustrations, Renaldo said, “I think that when you do things by hand, you’re really doing your work with love. And love is important.” With The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler, his wonderful work is now ours to love too.

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