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
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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, 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
Imagine 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.