The underground places on this planet are full of all manner of natural wonders: halls of gemstones, vast underground caverns, coated in colorful hunks of salt, and great underground rivers teeming with bling bioluminescent creatures found nowhere else in the world.
Among these remarkable natural sites, there are some places that exist as a testament to the unparalleled skill and creativity of human beings. Take for instance the series of caves in New Mexico, where one artist has spent his whole life creating something truly astounding…
New Mexican Caves
Across the hot, barren plains of northern New Mexico lies a handful of caves with a truly unique and beautiful secret inside. The soft sandstone mesas that makes up these underground caves is etched with carvings of a most unusual nature.
Decades at Work
The caves are adorned with ornate sculptures, each one more unique than the last. Yet these subterranean sculptures are not the work of some ancient Native American civilization, or even something far more ancient. No, they are the work of a man who has dedicated his life to his art in a way that few others have done…
Time and Patience
Artist Ra Paulette, a sculptor, architect, and structural engineer who lives in New Mexico, has dedicated almost half of his life to the creation of this amazing art. All told, he has carved out a whopping 14 caves in the desert just north of Santa Fe, over the past 30 years.
The walls of the caves are decorated with carved designs that range from flowers and suns, to shells, emotive design flourishes, and even some patterns that mimic things in the natural world. Because of this, all of Paulette’s carvings appear as though they formed naturally, and how he makes them is more amazing still…
Paulette has created an underground fantasy world using only his hands. He begins by taking natural crevasses and then painstakingly chiseling, digging, and carving intricate and often repeating patterns in them before moving on to the next section. It is a job that Paulette believes could go on indefinitely.
Ra Paulette grew up in northwest Indiana, along the shores of Lake Michigan, but moved to New Mexico in his late 20s. He is a self-taught artist, meaning he never studied any of his skills in school. His tools include shovels, pick axes, sand scrapers, and most importantly, his hands…
The 69-year-old sculptor begins by burrowing into the sides of the cliffs, where he digs open humongous, vertical shafts in which to work. He works through the day in these spaces, which are large enough to provide ventilation and close enough to the surface to grant him enough natural light to continue his work.
He has even integrated more practical features into the sandstone carvings, including the likes of staircases, windows, and doors. These make the caverns suitable places for meditation and spiritual connection to the Earth, which is part of why Paulette began this project in the first place…
Paulette has described the caves as “transformative spaces.” This harkens back to his own spirituality and their purpose places where like-minded visitors can meditate within the natural confines of caves. The caves all differ in size of course and each one has a different composition and design.
“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.” was Paulette’s detailed description. Of course, one cannot discount the caves’ natural beauty either…
The beauty of the caves comes not just from Paulette’s considerable efforts to beautify the sandstone but also the natural beauty of the earth itself. Paulette also specifically chooses caves with an excess of natural light so that visitors can truly appreciate each carved feature and natural nook and cranny.
Working with the Terrain
Paulette has always preferred to work with the terrain rather than against it and uses pre-existing crevasses more often than carving his own. Yet all of Paulette’s work was almost destroyed in one fell swoop because of the natural world he loves so much…
The Shrine Cave
One afternoon, Ra Paulette was working on a vast cave complex that basically consolidated many of the ideas and techniques he had developed over the decades. It was eventually made public and transformed into a sort of ecumenical shrine / venue for artistic events or performance.
Unfortunately, after about two years of digging and preparation, the cave began to become unstable. When a hunk of rock the size of a jeep fell from the ceiling into the main foyer, Paulette decided that falling boulders were not conducive to evening soirees in desert caves and declared the place too unsafe to continue. But that didn’t mean Paulette was about to stop…
Not for Money
Ra Paulette considers his creations to be more of a hobby and public service than anything else. He has only ever asked for money once in his 30 years and that was for the aforementioned ecumentical / party room. Instead, he sees the caves as a legacy: something that people can discover for themselves long after he’s gone.
Moved to Film
Filmmaker Jeffrey Karoff first came across one of Paulette’s caves over a decade ago. He said that the impact of the experience and the beauty he beheld triggered a fervent desire in him to create a documentary about the artist’s expansive efforts…
It took Karoff several more years to identify a suitable focus for the story of Paulette’s amazing caves. In the end, he settled on tale about the artist’s life and spirituality, which he then translated into the Oscar-nominated documentary, Cavedigger.
Free for All
Paulette hopes that those who do view his works in person come to seek him out afterwards. He believes that the art will speak to them and deliver unto them a sense of inner peace or epiphany that can help to further validate all the work he’s put in. There have been some hiccups though in that regard…
Paulette’s policy when it comes to his caves is fairly hands-off and this is likely for the best because many of the places where the caves are located sit on private land. It means that not all of his extensive works are accessible by the public. One in particular though, is being sold for over a million dollars…
The Windows in the Earth Shrine in northern New Mexico was created by the artist for a resort north of Santa Fe. Courageous visitors can climb a third of a mile, enjoy the view, and step inside the sandstone cave space to see all the splendor that nature and Ra Paulette have conspired together to create.