Imaginary friends are a typical childhood construct, but Renaldo Kuhler took that idea to unusual and astounding lengths. For 30 years, up until his death in June at age 81, Kuhler worked as an illustrator at Raleigh’s N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.
But that was just Kuhler’s day job. His real life’s work was an incredibly elaborate outsider-art project that happened behind the scenes, an imaginary republic called “Rocaterrania” – subject of a documentary showing at the museum on Thursday.
“The ability to fantasize is the ability to survive,” Kuhler declares at one point in the film, which is what he did with Rocaterrannia. It’s a fictional country, occupying a zone between the U.S. and Canadian border, and Kuhler invented it to give himself a happy-place escape from his troubled youth on a ranch in Colorado.
Rocaterrania didn’t end with Kuhler’s childhood, however. Over the years, he created a tumultuous history of the country based in part on events in his own life, and chronicled it all with incredibly detailed writings, drawings and paintings that look like communist propaganda posters from an alternative universe.
For “Rocaterrania,” filmmaker Brett Ingram portrays Kuhler making his daily rounds in downtown Raleigh (an eccentric character in his specially made Rocaterranian garb), showing off art from his collection and describing his country’s revolutions and historical events. In Kuhler’s telling, it’s so vivid that it’s hard to believe Rocaterrania doesn’t exist outside of his own mind.
Even though Kuhler is gone, his art lives on. It’s been on display in New York and Baltimore as well as here in Raleigh, with a Paris exhibition opening later this year.
And there’s also this documentary, featuring an elegant instrumental score by the local band Shark Quest, who play before Thursday’s screening.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat