Sculptor Ra Paulette has a phenomenal hobby – he digs caves in New Mexico’s sandstone cliffs. Not plain, rocky, boring ones. Ra’s caves are smooth, artistic, and breathtakingly beautiful, and he creates them with his bare hands. His only tools – a pickaxe and a wheelbarrow.
67-year-old Ra came into his unusual profession after years of being a drifter. He was a college dropout, was discharged from the U.S. Navy and hitchhiked his way across America. He worked on a series of odd jobs – postal employee, security guard, janitor, and even farmer and one point.
Ra learnt the art of digging in the summer of 1985, when he worked in Dixon as an excavator. He would dig outhouses and build wells, giving him a longing to do something artistic with his hands. One thing led to another and soon, he was digging caves.
He sculpted his first cave, the ‘Heart Chamber’ in 1987. It was made on public land in Arroyo Seco and soon became a public shrine of sorts. In fact, it became so crowded with visitors that Ra had to fill it in after a few years. “There were so many people going to it and it was detrimental to the area, and there were safety issues,” he said.
After that first one, Ra was commissioned to create caves by art-lovers, but he ran into several creative differences because of his approach towards the work. He doesn’t like taking instructions or following a brief. Instead, he waits for inspiration to hit him.
“The project kind of reveals itself,” he says. “I have a starting point in my mind, and then what’s being offered reveals itself as the project is underway.” His sole mission with the caves is to create ‘transformational spaces’. With that kind of attitude, client deadlines obviously went out the window.
But Ra has finally gotten rid of clients. He is currently working for himself on a 10-year project that he calls his magnum opus. It’s been three years so far and he promises that it will be an astounding feature. “It’s very exciting. It’s a culmination,” he says. “Actually, the process is what I get out of it, but I have a lot of ideas and plans, how this could be a societal tool, how this could be used as an instrument of connecting people to the earth and also to their own inner sense of who they are. I’m creating a venue, a very unique venue.”
Ra seems to effortlessly handle the sheer amount of physical activity involved in digging caves. I think he’s either completely obsessed with sculpting, or he’s got some amazing genes. But he does have a few tricks up his sleeve to make his work less tedious. Most of these involve being ‘rigorously practical’. “I try to avoid wheelbarrowing uphill,” he says. “So in most of them the floor level is higher than the outside entrance.”
Ra works in solitude, except for the company of his pet dog. He did try to hire a few assistants, but he says they couldn’t ‘get’ his cave digging process. “I’ve tried to tell young guys that they can do this, but it doesn’t register. Personally, I don’t see how these young guys could have followed instructions as vague as “follow your nose” or “find the floor.” Finding the floor in a mountain? What does that even mean?
The ‘Ra Caves’ – as many like to call the 14 structures Ra created in 25 years – were featured in an award winning documentary called Cavedigger. The independent film was made by Jeffery Karoff and is shortlisted for next year’s Oscar Award nominations. Karoff had been studying Ra’s work for 10 years before he began filming in 2010. “Paulette’s spectacular, Gaudi-like caves are easily on par with the most well-known land artists. Yet only a small circle in Northern New Mexico is aware of his work,” Karoff blogged.
One of Ra’s masterpieces called Tree of Human Kindness is actually up for sale on a New Mexico property listing website. Located between Santa Fe and Taos, the 208 acre property can be purchased for a whopping $995,000. Anyone looking for a spare cave?