CURATED BY BRETT INGRAM
Renaldo Kuhler (1931-2013) was born in New Jersey and raised near New York City. His father (Otto Kuhler) was a German-born industrial designer who streamlined steam locomotives during the Art Deco period. Otto was mostly absent due to work commitments, while Kuhler’s stern Belgian mother was alternately abusive and neglectful, shunting him off to boarding schools where he was bullied, ridiculed, and ostracized simply for being “different.”
In 1948, when Kuhler was 16, his father retired from the railroad business and moved the family to a remote cattle ranch in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Kuhler found the isolation of the ranch almost unbearable, and secretly retreated to a fantasy world of his own invention, an imaginary country he called Rocaterrania. He set out to illustrate the history of this nation in plain spiral bound notebooks and other scraps of paper.
An amalgam of Kuhler’s varied cultural and aesthetic tastes, Rocaterrania resembles a vaguely familiar, yet ultimately inscrutable, sovereign nation of Eastern European immigrants. Situated on the border of New York state and Canada, Rocaterrania’s name was derived from Rockland County, NY, Kuhler’s childhood home. The country has a unique government, military, language, alphabet, religion, architecture, movie industry, and a fully mapped geography of cities, mountains, farmlands, lakes, and rivers. It also has a dramatic history of oppression, revolutions, violent conflicts, and reversals of fortune—one that mirrors the narrative arc of Kuhler’s own life.
What had initially begun as an escape became a secret lifelong quest to illustrate the history of Rocaterrania, one fraught with turmoil and political intrigue. With Rocaterrania, Kuhler created an intricately coded, metaphoric account of his own struggles for independence and freedom from a family, and a society, that had consistently rejected him. He systematically isolated the internal and external forces in his life and fleshed them out with voices, settings, and backstories in order to make sense of them, sublimating his despair into an astounding body of work.
Kuhler’s oeuvre embodies his tremendous powers of imagination. His gift for analogical thinking flowered in his reimagining and repurposing of personalities, places, and events from world history, organically dovetailing with those of his own life to form a cohesive, fully imagined world.
The nation of Rocaterrania was ruled by an iron-handed monarchy when young Renaldo was dependent upon his neglectful and emotionally abusive parents. As he earned independence by leaving the ranch, attending college where he earned a B.A. in history from the University of Colorado, legally changing his name from Ronald to Renaldo, and eventually building a career for himself as a scientific illustrator for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, a succession of tyrannical regimes were overturned in Rocaterrania—gradually settling into a democratic socialism that came to bear only when his personal transformation was complete.
*Rocaterrania Royal Family Tree | Courtesy of Laura Lindgren*
“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... I am Rocaterrania.”