Award-winning documentarian Brett Ingram ’88 brings his film about an “imaginary” world to the Gregg Museum of Art & Design Saturday night. Rocaterrania features the story of Renaldo Kuhler, whose illustrations have been featured in an exhibit at the Gregg all summer. We caught up with Ingram by email to tell us about Kuhler’s creative world.
How did you come up with the idea for this film? I saw Renaldo on a city bus in 1994 and he immediately made an impression on me. He has that effect on people! However, I didn’t see him again until I took a job at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in 1996. I was introduced to him on my first day of work and I thought, “Hey, there’s that guy from the bus!” We instantly became friends and gradually he revealed to me that he had created this imaginary country.
Who is Renaldo Kuhler and what is his world of Rocaterrania? Renaldo Kuhler is a self-taught illustrator (he hates to be referred to as an “artist”) who made a living as a scientific illustrator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for thirty years. Renaldo invented Rocaterrania as an escape from a dull life as a teenager on a remote cattle ranch in the Colorado Rockies in 1948. Rocaterrania also became a way of coping with an emotionally abusive upbringing, and its history parallels Renaldo’s own life story.
How much time did you spend with him while filming the documentary? I actually started shooting the film in 1998, but only worked on it sporadically until 2004, when I began working on the film with more intensity. Meanwhile, I was finishing up another feature documentary and several shorts. It also took years for Renaldo to open up to me completely. I visited Renaldo often during those first six years, visiting over coffee, lunch, or dinner, or just riding around Raleigh looking at new construction of his favorite activities. He became a good friend, maybe more like an uncle, to me.
What’s something that surprised you about Kuhler and his world? I was surprised and amazed at the detail with which the history of Rocaterrania was conceived and rendered. For narrative reasons, the film only explores the highlights of Rocaterrania’s history. It’s actually much, much more complicated and detailed with dozens of characters, all with backstories and extended families.
Subjects of your other films are also imaginative artists. What draws you to their stories? Like many of my subjects, I have found art, or in my case, filmmaking, to have a redemptive power. A creative spark, an idea, gives me an immediate rush and rejuvenates my soul every time. It’s a medium through which I can make sense of this mystery called life.
Why is the Gregg an ideal venue to hold a screening of the film? First of all, Renaldo has lived in Raleigh longer than anywhere else in his life – 42 years! Second, Raleigh is where I met Renaldo and the project began. Third, because, the Gregg is a special place and it’s director, Roger Manley, was the first – and only – curator to program exhibits of Renaldo’s work. Raleigh – and NC State – are special to me because I studied engineering as an undergrad at NCSU and lived in Raleigh off and on for about 10 years.