First published: Fall 2009
On the border between Canada and northern New York, just south of the St Lawrence River, lies a tiny nation of eastern European immigrants who share a rich culture and a tumultuous history. Fraught with political turmoil since its inception in the early 1930s, Rocaterrania has seen the rise and fall of empresses, czars, presidents, dictators and premieres, slowly developing from a monarchy into a democratic society. It's also a nation that is paradoxically fascist about individualism.
The oral and illustrated history of Rocaterrania is the satirically encoded life story of its creator, Renaldo Gillette Kuhler, a 77-year-old retired scientific illustrator in Raleigh, North Carolina.
In his 30-year career as a self-taught scientific illustrator, Kuhler made hundreds of precisely-rendered illustrations depicting the diverse flora and fauna of North Carolina for scientific journals and reference books. His meticulous style of drawing captured essential details of natural forms, ranging from the scales on reptile skin and the bone structures of vole skulls to the complex articulation of insect limb joints.
But his true artistic undertaking is of another order entirely. In addition to his staggering number of scientific illustrations, Kuhler has worked in secret most of his adult life to create a substantial body of personal art that almost no one had ever seen until documentary filmmaker Brett Ingram learned about it while completing a video project at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
Sharing part of the museum basement lab where Kuhler worked, it was hard for Ingram to overlook the strangeness of a scene that the illustrator's regular colleagues had apparently become so familiar with that they no longer paid it any attention.
Resembling an oversized scribe from an Orthodox monastery in his long white beard and hair, the 6'4" Kuhler spent his days hunched over a stereo microscope gazing at rare specimens while painstakingly rendering them in three dimensions with his array of technical pens. But instead of a lab coat or clerical garb, he wore a peculiar, tight-fitting three-piece uniform that included shorts, tasseled knee-length white socks, and a neckerchief with an odd slide made of laminated paper.
This daily outfit – equal parts Boy Scout, Civil War re-enactor and Eastern European border guard – along with Kuhler's habit of speaking loudly to himself in a booming, vaguely foreign-sounding brogue, had earned him the right to be left alone in an isolated workplace in the windowless bowels of the museum. Ingram, however, was intrigued by Kuhler's peculiarities, and not only made friends with him but spent the next 12 years slowly gaining his trust and gradually unearthing and documenting the secret life of a major new find in the world of self-taught creation (Kuhler loathes being called an 'artist', insisting on being called an illustrator). The result is Rocaterrania, a feature-length documentary film currently making the rounds of the film festival circuit.