Renaldo Kuhler created, designed and even crafted the written language for an entire imaginary country, right down to its film industry and noxious odors. Nek Chand created an elaborate concrete garden in the midst of an Indian jungle. Gayleen Aiken gave birth to a family of 24 cardboard cutouts, through which she re-created the pastoral Vermont of her youth. Grandma Prisbrey created a village out of bottles and other recyclables.
Fringe artists like these are not just different from you and me; they're different from other artists as well, operating so far outside the mainstream that society often doesn't know whether to cherish or mock them. But there's no missing the point of a monthlong documentary series beginning tonight at the American Visionary Art Museum: These are people to be treasured, producing works of art that, even when seen, are hard to believe.
"They're all so idiosyncratic and amazing, each in their own way," says Theresa Segreti, AVAM's director of design and education. "I find it so inspiring - here are people, many times they're very poor or living out in the middle of nowhere, and somehow they find the resources to be among the most prolific and most imaginative people. These are people with really no experience in doing something, but they just figure out a way to do it."
Series organizers would have been hard-pressed to come up with someone who makes that point better than Renaldo Kuhler, a scientific illustrator and inveterate visionary who is the subject of the opening-night selection, "Rocaterrania." The 2008 documentary, from director Brett Ingram, gives Kuhler about 80 minutes to detail the history, people and culture of Rocaterrania, a tiny country of seeming Eastern European origin that's nestled, uncomfortably at times, between the U.S. and Canada.
No real country has a story more endlessly fascinating, more finely nuanced or more exhaustively chronicled. Kuhler, the grandson of a German anvil maker, began imagining Rocaterrania as a youngster, much to the despair of his parents, who believed their quiet, loner son was just wasting his time and talents. Kuhler's imagination, and with it the development of a comprehensive history and culture for Rocaterrania (an offshoot of the phrase "rocky terrain") really took off after the Kuhlers moved from upstate New York to a ranch in Colorado. Their son, by then in his teens, was miserable, hating the isolation and wide-open spaces.
Says Ingram, "with Renaldo, what struck me was that he had basically created this entire world, a fantasy world, as a way of coping with a troubled childhood, a troubled upbringing, and really a troubled life."
What makes Ingram's film so riveting is that Kuhler is there, long gray beard, wizened eyes and all, to tell everyone about it. He's exhilaratingly open about where the impetus for his fanciful republic originated, pointing out the parallels between his life and events in Rocaterrania. When his parents were, in his view, being particularly tyrannical, the country's politics became dark, forbidding, unenlightened. When Kuhler found gainful employment, especially as an illustrator for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, the rulers of Rocaterrania would prove fairly enlightened.
Throughout the tour of his country, a tour enlivened by hundreds of drawings and several volumes of writings, Kuhler proves a guide both knowledgeable and enchanting. It's hard deciding what to admire more: the matter-of-fact way in which he chronicles the history and culture of Rocaterrania (explaining, for instance, how the language is a mix of Russian, Slavic, Yiddish and Spanish), or the ease with which he makes the connections between his real and imagined worlds. The stern faces and bold lines of his illustrations - the men of Rocaterrania tend to look like Czar Nicholas of Russia, while the women call to mind Greta Garbo in 1933's "Queen Christina" - recall the work of cartoonist R. Crumb, though without the often-pervasive darkness.
"A lot of these artists aren't even discovered until after they've passed away," notes Ingram, who spent nearly eight years coaxing Kuhler into telling his story, then another two putting the film together. The director thinks of Kuhler's work as "personal redemption, through art."
"Rocaterrania" has been shown in Baltimore once before, at last year's Maryland Film Festival. Founder Jed Dietz praised the singular nature of Kuhler's work, as well as Ingram's great good fortune in being able to introduce audiences to it with the artist on screen.
"I'm sure there are people all over the world like this, but you don't get to see them," Dietz says. "To have this filmmaker document this. ... It's trumpeting individuality in a totally wonderful way."
Much the same can be said for all the films at AVAM this month. This is the kind of work it has championed since its founding 15 years ago; the work of two of them, Kuhler and Gayleen Aiken, is on display. "It's inspiring," Segreti says, "the magnitude of what these people are creating."
Winter film series
The American Visionary Art Museum's free Winter Visionary Film Series runs Thursdays through January at the museum, 800 Key Hwy. Showtime is 7 p.m. Call 410-244-1900 or go to avam.org.