If you’ve had the opportunity to visit one of Ra Paulette’s art caves in the Embudo area, the word “transcendent” might occur to you when describing the experience. “I call it the cave effect,” Paulette said. “There are some perceptual and psychological things that are in play, as far as a medium goes, that are advantages in this work.”
And work it is. The process of creating his underground cathedrals is intensely physical, as viewers of CaveDigger will see. The new documentary film screens at the Center for Contemporary Art on Tuesday and Sunday, July 9 and 14. Even though his medium is relatively soft sandstone, it is rock, and the cave sites are remote. You get an inkling of the effort involved when you observe Paulette trudging, climbing over the landscape on his way to his current cave project, a wheelbarrow and tools strapped to his back. Then there’s all the digging and carving, creating arches and walls, shoveling all the loose stuff into the barrow, and hauling it outside the cave entrance.
California filmmaker Jeffrey Karoff was inspired to make CaveDigger not only because of the quality of this work but because of the artist’s anonymity. “Paulette’s spectacular, Gaudi-like caves are easily on par with the most well-known land artists — Goldsworthy, Smithson, De Maria — yet only a small circle in Northern New Mexico is aware of his work,” Karoff wrote in a blog for the Maui Film Festival. His 2013 documentary won an audience award for Best Short at the mid-June festival.
The most recent image in CaveDigger is from August 2012. Karoff started shooting in January 2010, a decade after he first saw a Paulette cave. That occasion was the result of meeting Shel Neymark and Liz Riedel at a Dixon pancake break- fast. “They were having a cave built, and at that point they were pretty exasperated, because it had been going on for some time, and Liz was sick. But I walked into that cave and was just sort of hit with this visceral impact.”
As the film shows, Paulette’s wholly intuitive process — as he picks through the rock, creating floors and ceilings, pillars, rooms, doorways, steps, benches, and detailed carving decorations in the sur- face — made it difficult to satisfy clients’ needs regarding deadlines. Each cave took years to complete.
“I wasn’t particularly interested in making a piece that was simply exploring an artist and his process and work,” Karoff said. “I wanted to find something deeper and more universal. There’s a fundamental irony, because here’s a guy who is ultimately an outsider in almost every way you can think of, and yet he was dealing with a timeless conflict: creative freedom versus the financing for that creativity and dealing with people. Ra is a world-class artist and he is unnoticed, and because of that he has to deal with the exigencies of having patrons and what they want. So is he a contractor or is he an artist?”
Karoff said the major challenge in doing the film was finding a structure. “Biography does not supply that very easily, so finding a way to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end was difficult.” He found what he came to think of as “a liberation story” in the conflicts Paulette had with patrons, which disappeared when the artist ultimately decided to work only for himself.
Most of the art caves have proceeded without incident, as Paulette carves away, relying on what he terms “intuitive engineering.” In one project, though, he encountered a different sort of rock. “That wasn’t the usual Ojo Caliente sandstone, but it was in my backyard. I did my best, but the material didn’t work. The Ojo Caliente sandstone is homogeneous. You’re dealing with one material, basically going into a solidness that is all one thing. If your shapes are conservatively engineered, I don’t have problems. Safety is everything, working as a cave artist.”
Even with the more consistent rock, it’s still one of the most demanding mediums one could conceive for such large projects. Is the man obsessively physical? “It comes out of my life experience. For many years I traveled around and worked as a farm laborer. I was known as the human backhoe. My approach to labor is as a dancer. It’s a very minimalistic dance.”
Paulette grew up in La Porte, Indiana. He came to Arroyo Seco in 1977 to visit an old friend and moved to Embudo in 1984. He finished the first cave in 1987. Known as the Heart Chamber, it was created on public land and became somewhat of a public shrine — so well-visited, in fact, that the artist had to fill it in. “There were so many people going to it and it was detrimental to the area, and there were safety issues.”
He calls himself “a precocious beginner,” in spite of that fact that he’s been dedicating himself to creating these caves for more than a quarter century. “I don’t have a studio, and I try to evolve by doing different things. As a sculptor I don’t have that many hours in, because so much of it has to do with excavation, but I think creating negative space and feeling the shape of the negative space is a sculptural aspect that I think you only find in digging a cave. That’s another psychological aspect of the cave effect: we feel the shapes we’re in with our peripheral attention and it is different to be in shapes that are other than rectangular prisms.
“The project kind of reveals itself. I have a starting point in my mind, and then what’s being offered reveals itself as the project is under way.” With that modus operandus, problems with client deadlines are a given. That is no longer an issue. He is in his third year of a 10-year project, just for himself. He calls it his magnum opus.
He could use some help. But in the film, he says, ”I’ve tried to tell young guys that they can do this, but it doesn’t register.” There have been some with an interest, but they didn’t seem to have the ability.
“Ra turns 67 in July, and he’s pretty out-front about wanting to have young people working with him,” Karoff said. “He has in the past tried to instruct people on how to follow their noses into the mountain and none of them can find the floor.”
Finding the floor. Imagine carving your way through a mountainside, looking for a “floor.” One important aspect of the process is rigorously practical. “I try to avoid wheelbarrowing uphill,” Paulette said. “So in most of them the floor level is higher than the outside entrance. But I generally go up and down, up and down, and here and there I’ll go through the ceiling because it’s important to correlate the outside with the inside.”
Karoff and his Transylvania-born director of photography, Anghel Decca, give viewers plenty of rhapsodic pans in these entrancing sandstone spaces. With all that’s gone before it, Paulette’s magnum opus promises to be an astounding feature.
“It’s very exciting. It’s a culmination,” he said. “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.” ◀
“CaveDigger” screens at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 9, including an interview with Ra Paulette, and at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, July 14 (with Paulette and director Jeffrey Karoff), at the Center for Contemporary Art (1050 Old Pecos Trail, 982-1338).