Ra Paulette, the Cave-digging Artist


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Myself  

By T.V. Antony Raj

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It has a lot to do with the juxtaposition of opposites: the sense of being underground with the light streaming in; the intimacy of being in a cave, yet the columns end up very large, sometimes thirty to forty feet high.  – Ra Paulette in an interview, 2014

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Ra Paulette, the American cave sculptor
Ra Paulette, the American cave sculptor

For the past 25 years, 67-year-old Ra Paulette, an American cave sculptor based in New Mexico has been carving out caves from the sandstone hills of New Mexico. He digs, shovels, scrapes, and bores into hillsides. He then sculpts elaborate artistic spaces inside these caves. He turns the underground sculpted spaces into works of art. And, his caves attract visitors worldwide.

Ra Paulette grew up in  La Porte, LaPorte County, Indiana, United States, along the shores of Lake Michigan. In 1985, he moved to the small town of Dixon in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, near the Rio Grande about 35 miles north of Santa Fe.

A veteran of the Vietnam War, Ra Paulette began creating underground art. When he roamed the rugged terrain of the remote backcountry and found a promising spot on the side of a sandstone cliff he would start digging with his pickaxe. He works with rudimentary hand tools such as shovels, pick axes, and scrapers. Paulette never studied architecture, sculpting or structural engineering in a formal school. He is self-taught.

In 1987 Paulette finished his first cave using a shovel and buckets and a wheelbarrow. He called the “Heart Chamber.” Later on, he described it to a historian as “a secret place for me, a private place, a hermitage.” The Heart Chamber had many visitors and it almost developed into a public shrine. The cave was on public land and he had dug it without permission from the authorities. Fearing it might collapse on a visitor, he buried the chamber and sealed it off.

The Jemez Mountains are a volcanic group of mountains in New Mexico, United States. Located in the rural Ojo Caliente River Valley, approximately halfway between is the Rancho de San Juan, the 225-acre Relais & Chateaux Country Inn and Restaurant. David Heath and John H. Johnson II, the owners of the ranch had moved to the area from California to open the elegant Resort.

In June 1994, Ra Paulette approached the owners of Rancho de San Juan. He showed them pictures of the Heart Chamber and asked them if they would like to commission him to dig a shrine on their property. At first the owners were reluctant. After several months 0f persistence by Paulette, they relented. They wanted their guests to have a view of the surrounding impressive landscape from their ranch. They commissioned Ra Paulette to open the interior of the natural butte. Heath and Johnson paid him between $10 and $16 per hour for his work.

"Windows in the Earth" shrine  was carved over 2 1/2 years.
“Windows in the Earth” shrine was carved over 2 1/2 years.

It took two and a half years for Ra Paulette to create the “Windows in the Earth Shrine.” It is a chamber with lofty arched ceilings and imposing columns. Long windows fill the chambers with light. The windows provide a spectacular panorama of the magnificent Jemez Mountains. Inside the sandstone cave, one can enjoy the art created by Ra Paulette. He has carved all sorts of shapes on the interior sandstone walls: scallops, molded curves, smooth ledges, inlaid stones, narrow pods and crusty ledges. There is space to meditate and write. Even high desert weddings take place there.

Later on, Ra Paulette created more than a dozen caves. He spent months and in some cases he toiled for years on each of them.

Ra Paulette's cave
Ra Paulette’s cave
Ra Paulette's cave
Ra Paulette’s cave
Ra Paulette's cave
Ra Paulette’s cave
Ra Paulette's cave
Ra Paulette’s cave

Needless to say, the work of Ra Paulette was backbreaking. He carved out rooms, connected tunnels, created alcoves and arches, benches, steps, pillars, etc. He decorated the surfaces with sculpted shapes and chiseled ornamental patterns. He broke through walls and ceilings to create windows and skylights to bring in sunlight to the dark underground spaces.

Martha Mendoza, a reviewer in the Los Angeles Times described the caves of Ra Paulette as hallowed places and as a sanctuary for prayer and meditation. Many connoisseurs of art describe the caves of Ra Paulette as works of art.

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