Ra Paulette Digs Shrines in the Wilderness

I love serendipitous moments. Discovering the work of Ra Paulette was one such moment.

Last week, I received an email notification of a New Mexico retreat by a writer whose work I follow. At a cost of $6,000 US for five days, not including airfare, the retreat will be happening without me. But in reading the program outline, I came across a reference to a beautiful cave created by Ra Paulette. A photo showed the walls of the cave– buttery smooth sandstone with little alcoves where you could sit and meditate while light poured in from above.

The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.

Joseph Campbell
  My interest piqued, I did some digging (of the armchair researcher variety).

CaveDigger, the Movie

Producer Jeffrey Karoff  was chatting with a neighbour while enjoying pancakes at a community fundraising event. The neighbour told him that Ra Paulette, a local artist, was digging a cave for him. Karoff went to see the cave, expecting exactly what I expect of a cave–a dark hole in a wall of rock. Shocked and moved by what he saw, Karnoff made a short documentary.

CaveDigger was nominated for a 2014 Academy Award and won awards at a number of independent film festivals.Ra Paulette walking in one of his sculpted caves
Here’s a two minute trailer:

If you’d like to watch the entire 39-minute documentary, you can find it here. It is exceptional.cave carving Ra Paulette

Ra Paulette briefly enjoyed the recognition that came with CaveDigger, until it started to interfere with his work. Now he won’t talk to anyone from the media, and he won’t accept any more commissions to build caves for other people. Ra Paulette is a man on a mission and he is running out of time.

Ra Paulette, Cave Digger

Paulette is 77-years old. He works alone to dig caves out of the soft Ojo Caliente sandstone found between Santa Fe and Taos in northern New Mexico. He uses only hand tools which he carries in a wheelbarrow on his back, no dynamite or pneumatic drills. When he’s in his groove, Paulette refers to his process as “the dance of digging” and says it’s “the secret of how this old man can get so much done.”detail of Ra Paulette cave design with stone insets

Digging began in 1986 after Paulette saw a small cave that some kids had made. With no formal training, no degree in architecture or engineering or sculpting, Ra Paulette nevertheless creates stunningly beautiful underground rooms, complete with 30-40 foot ceilings, staircases, windows and doors. Some walls are smooth; others are carved with images of flowers, people, tree trunks, and abstract designs.

Paulette doesn’t plan his work. Rather, he relies on his intuition and his experience to direct him as he digs down, then across, and then up to bring sunlight into each chamber. He sees himself as more archaeologist than sculptor, uncovering something that is already there. I’ve heard this belief expressed by many sculptors, including Walter Mariga, the Zimbabwean stone artist I introduced in an earlier post.

In the early days, Ra Paulette wore a handwritten note around his neck, apologizing to the rescuers who would be retrieving his body in the event of a cave-in. Over the years, however, he says he has “gotten a pretty good idea of what’s safe, using my own fear level as a guide.”Ra Paulette taking stone out of cave in wheelbarrow

The Caves

Since 1986, Ra Paulette has dug fourteen caves. His first was dug on public land without permission. The Heart Chamber had so many visitors that Paulette, nervous that he’d be condemned by authorities, sealed it off.

Another cave, Windows of the Earth, is available to tour at Origin resort, the site of the writer’s retreat mentioned above.

The rest of the caves are privately owned. Trespassers have been vandalizing the caves, defacing them with graffiti. Owners are forced to put locked doors on their caves, and to prosecute offenders. Ra Paulette climbing ladder to cave opening

Ra Paulette, Artist

Ra Paulette is a man in singleminded pursuit of his passion, but his passion doesn’t pay. He works for a very low hourly rate (anywhere from $12-$18 is quoted online), but since Paulette’s art develops organically, estimates of how long it will take to dig a cave have been massively insufficient. For example, one predicted two month project took two and a half years to complete.

‘Complete’ is actually the wrong word. Almost all of Ra Paulette’s commissioned projects have been aborted by the owners. They either ran out of funds or out of patience with Paulette’s unwillingness to compromise his artistic vision and take their direction. Owners assert that their caves are “good enough,” a concept that Ra Paulette abhors.

Fed up, Paulette decided in 2010 that he will have to stop working alone in the caves when he turns eighty in 2020. That gave him ten years to create what he refers to as his Magnum Opus, a cave with a series of underground chambers where he can try all of the ideas he has never had a chance to try, including a waterfall and a pool.

Paulette devoted two years to Magnum Opus I, a cave he attempted to build on his own property. Unfortunately, the rock he was digging wasn’t sandstone. When a piece of rock the size of a car fell from the roof, the project was aborted. Paulette shrugged off the two years of lost effort, claiming that the collapse got him where he needed to go. Magnum Opus II is being constructed in a secret location in the sandstone that Paulette knows well.

Ra Paulette, Visionary

entrance to a Ra Paulette caveImagine walking through a small opening in the side of a mountain and entering a sun-filled cathedral. You are inside of a work of art, a spiritual, peaceful place.  This is exactly what Ra Paulette intends. In the CaveDigger documentary, he says,

“These caves are designed as transformative spaces. The fact that the cave is underground and you feel the earth around you, yet the sun is pouring in, those are the juxtapositions of the two metaphors of our life; the within and the without. It’s a perceptual trick that bring out deep, expansive emotionality.” 

If I ever win a lottery, my dream is to make it easier for artists to do their work by removing all of their financial worries. I would love to be able to do that for Ra Paulette. Short of that, dream #2 is to spend some time in one of Ra Paulette’s wilderness shrines.

Did you know about Ra Paulette before reading this post? Would you like to visit one of his caves? Please let us know in the comments below.

 

 

18 comments

  1. This was a fascinating post, Karen. I did not know about Ra Paulette before reading your post. I had a good chuckle when I read “My interest piqued, I did some digging (of the armchair researcher variety).” Through reading what you wrote here I am amazed that not only does this man have a passion and a vision but to do it all by hand! I am in awe. It angers me that people have been defacing his works of art with graffiti. I have no clue why someone would take something beautiful like this and destroy it, destroy all that work for no justifiable reason. It makes me want to cry (and wring the necks of those that hold that spray paint cans). Poor Ra Paulette, can you imagine putting your all into this kind of massive artwork only to have it ruined in minutes?
    Thanks for bringing this wonderful man to my attention…I will have to click on the link you have graciously provided (right after hitting Post on this comment) and watch the full 39-minute documentary. That kind of video is right up my alley.

  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Susan, and that Ra Paulette’s work grabbed you as it did me.
    I don’t know what kind of graffiti has been left in some of the privately owned caves (it may well be complimentary) or how much this problem has actually occurred, but in my mind even one instance is inexcusable. What a shame that the locations of many of the caves have to be top secret for this and other reasons. To me, it’s like hiding the work of Vincent van Gogh or Michelangelo. Such work belongs to the world, but to a respectful world.
    When you have a chance to view the documentary, I’d love to hear what you think.
    Thanks.

    1. That was a great documentary and it sure gave me some insight into the man and the way he thinks about things. I feel bad for his wife though when she explains that sometimes she wishes she could just do her own thing instead of supporting them all the time. He is an artist but I think he should work even part time to help out. What he gets paid for digging caves is not enough when you figure out how much he underestimates the time to complete the cave. Divide all the hours he spends into the money he gets and it is not worth it in the end. I feel for him as well though when he speaks about his elusive Magnum Opus. When you hear him talk about the digs you can hear the passion and a great deal of thinking he has done about what he does. The cave in was scary when you see the size of the piece that fell not far from him – I wonder how his wife deals with the fear of him digging by himself, she would never know that he was in trouble until it was too late.

      Seeing some of the caves, they were magnificent. It must have felt so satisfying to hear the tourist tell him that the mirrors looked like water because that was exactly what he was going for and the client disagreed. LOL…I would be tempted to tell her, in your face lady – other people can see his vision.

      1. Hi Susan,
        I understand your point about Paulette’s wife. But I’m guessing she has agreed to this lifestyle… for whatever reason. Maybe, like many women, she actually enjoys having so much time to herself!

  3. WOW! Thank you so much for introducing this amazing artist to us! I would love to visit one – or all – of his caves one day. It’s sad that his work isn’t more accessible… and that some felt the need to deface it with graffiti. That picture of the artist climbing the ladder is breathtaking.

  4. Wow! (It could have been a wow post!) This is an incredible post, Karen, one I did not expect! 🙂 I would love to visit one of Paulette’s caves, but it seems that this is only possible in one spot. Since we are in Northern New Mexico at the moment, I will look into the cave tour at the retreat. I’m looking forward to watching the whole documentary one of these evenings!

    I hope one of your two dreams comes through!!

    1. Yup, this has to be one of my favourite Wow Notes, Liesbet. I thought you might find it unexpected! You’re right that it’s currently only possible to see one of Ra’s caves at Origin retreat. From what I understand, it’s not one of his most elaborate ones, but I imagine it will still be just fascinating to experience if you have the opportunity.
      Me too on the dreams. I bought lottery tickets today!

      1. The documentary was spectacular as well, with the necessary conflict between creator and commissioner! I looked into visiting Ra’s cave at Origin retreat, but at $50 a person for the tour, that is way above our budget. The photos and movie will have to do for now. 🙂

  5. Hi Karen
    This is absolutely fascinating! I am intrigued by what has been done.Like other commenters I am also wondering about the vandalizing that has been done. What is it about the human race that makes us want to ruin someone’s vision? At any rate I very much enjoyed the topic!

  6. WOW! Karen, I worked in Santa Fe for a couple of weeks many years ago and I never heard of Ra until now. I know sandstone is easy to work with because all over New Mexico you can find little sandstone sculptures for sale – but cave carving is at a completely different level. I’m in awe at the incredible and intricate chambers he has created and would love to visit his cave at Origin retreat. Wonderful posting Karen!!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Anna. I don’t remember noticing sandstone carvings when I was in New Mexico – just lots and lots of blankets and turquoise and little wooden things – but it makes sense that people would carve the stone. I hadn’t thought of that.

  7. Thank you so much for this post, Karen, and for the accompanying links. I just finished watching the documentary. Like others, all that I can say is, “WOW”. This is so inspiring and thought-provoking. I knew absolutely nothing about this work previously.

    1. Thanks, Donna. I found it startling to have known absolutely nothing about Ra Paulette and his art. It’s just such an amazing thing that these things can go on and the world can remain oblivious – especially given relentless news coverage. If the news routinely covered this kind of story, I’d be so much more interested!

  8. Wow, those caves are impressive! Ra Paulette is driven by his artistic vision, and like artists throughout history, his art does not remunerate him proportionately to the work he puts into it. In our society, we do not value artists and their work at the same level that we value hockey players or film stars. My daughter is an artist, but she has to support herself in other ways, which limits the amount of time she has for her art. I don’t know what the solution is.

    Jude

    1. Hi Jude,
      This week, I’m going to write a post about an excellent book I’ve just finished reading – The Geography of Genius. It’s about the characteristics of culture that allowed for golden ages of creative genius, including artists. One of the quotes that the author repeats several times is from Plato – “What is honoured in a country is cultivated there.”

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