Dotted across the plains of northern New Mexico are a handful of caves carved by hand into the soft sandstone mesas and decorated with intricate organic motifs. These subterranean sculptures are the work of local artist Ra Paulette, who has spent almost 30 years excavating this arid landscape and creating characterful grottoes that he calls "luminous caves".
Ra Paullete, cave digger and artist. Credit: RA PAULETTE
Using only hand tools, including pick axes, shovels and scrapers, the 69-year-old sculptor burrows into the sides of the cliffs, opening up vertical shafts as he works to provide ventilation and natural light. Practical features such as staircases, windows and doors are integrated to make the caves suitable for use as sanctuaries or places for meditation. Paulette sometimes carves the inner surfaces with forms resembling flowers, figures and tree trunks.
A Spiritual Place
"These caves are designed as transformative spaces," said Paulette in a documentary released last year about his work by director, Jeffrey Karoff. "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 brings out deep, expansive emotionality."
The beauty of the caves comes from a combination of their natural materiality and the way Paulette channels daylight into the spaces to illuminate the smoothly curving surfaces and relief decoration. Using his intuition and experience to guide his excavations, the artist creates chambers connected by tunnels that are intended to encourage "spiritual renewal and personal well being." Each one is unique and takes several years to complete.
Jeffrey Karoff first came across one of Paulette's caves over a decade ago and says the "sheer visceral" impact of that experience triggered an immediate desire to film inside them. However, the caves themselves weren't reason enough to create a documentary, and it took the director several years to identify a suitable focus for the story.
"I thought this 'underground' artist should be on the map," explains Karoff from his office in Venice, California. "It was only when Ra had a collapse in one of his caves and subsequently introduced me to his former patrons, many of whom had a challenging experience working with him, that the story of a man struggling to maintain a singular vision took shape."
The collapse Karoff refers to occurred while Paulette was working on a vast cave complex that consolidated many of the ideas and techniques developed over the course of his cave-digging life. The cave was to be made available to the public for use as an ecumenical shrine and a venue for artistic events and performances. However, after roughly two years of digging, a piece of rock "the size of a Jeep" fell from the roof, prompting the artist to declare it too unsafe to continue.
The incident looked to have quashed Paulette's enthusiasm for the project, but in 2010 he began work on a new cave system that he describes as his "magnum opus", and expects will take him ten years to complete. This single-minded pursuit of a uniquely personal dream in spite of the dangers involved is, according to Karoff, what makes Paulette's story so extraordinary. "He's devoted to his vision," the director claims. "There's nothing he loves more than digging and I think if he had his way he'd do it every waking hour."
No More Media
The release of the "Cavedigger" documentary
was met with critical acclaim, culminating in a nomination in the Best Short Documentary category at the 2014 Academy Awards. Karoff says the resulting media attention helped raise Paulette's profile and was welcomed by the artist until it began to interfere with his projects. "We had no idea the film was going to garner so much recognition and so many viewers," says the director, adding that he set out to make a film to be shown at a handful of independent film festivals. "At first I think Ra enjoyed the recognition, especially locally in northern New Mexico, though even then he was ambivalent about it. Later he grew weary of the attention and felt it was a distraction from the work."
Paulette now disregards any approaches from the media but, as far as Karoff is aware, he continues to work on the project that he believes will keep him occupied for the rest of his cave-digging life. "This cave in process will probably be the last one," admits the artist towards the end of the film. "There's just physically a finite time for which someone can work almost completely by themselves." Should Paulette succeed with this ultimate endeavor, he will not only have achieved his lifetime ambition, but will leave behind a legacy that is truly set in stone.
Cavedigger is available to purchase on DVD or download at www.cavediggerdocumentary.com