Meet the Man Turning Caves into Gorgeous Dwellings
By Mitchell Clute
I’ve always been attracted to quirky visionaries and spirited free-thinkers, people who can’t help but march to the beat of a drum that no one else hears. So when I heard of Jeffrey Karoff’s Academy Award–nominated documentary CaveDigger, about modern iconoclast Ra Paulette and his astounding hand-carved caves, I knew I had to watch.
Luckily, CaveDigger can be found for viewing or purchase on Vimeo, and within a few minutes I was caught up in an extraordinary story, one that chronicles the give-and-take between our inner and outer worlds, between worldly success and sacred vision.
Paulette, sixty-five, calls himself “a digger of caves and a piler of rocks.” Using only hand tools—shovels, pickaxes and scrapers—he works in a geologically unique area of northern New Mexico, where the soft sandstone left behind by ancient seas allows him to create spaces of vast size and subtle beauty.
A self-described late bloomer, Paulette began digging at the age of thirty-nine. But what would draw a man to start chipping away at a hillside, hollowing out underground spaces that can take two years to finish? “I was wondering what was inside myself,” Paulette says, “that was completely, uniquely my own perspective.” By transforming solid earth into sacred space, Paulette manages to give his unique inner vision an outer form.
Twenty-five years on, Paulette has created dozens of his signature caves, illuminated by skylights—all the while trying to patch together a living as he sculpts his transcendent spaces for patrons who pay him an hourly laborer’s fee.
CaveDigger passes no judgment on Paulette’s passion. The film shows the artist at work on his magnum opus, the cave he believes will be his masterwork; but it also reveals how his singular vision brings him into conflict—with frustrated patrons whose commissioned works he seems never to finish, friends who wonder how long he can keep at it, a wife forced to pick up the financial slack as Paulette gives all his days to digging.
Paulette believes that his caves are transformational spaces, surrounded by earth but pierced by the sun. The caves, he says, are “the juxtaposition of the two metaphors of our lives, the within and the without.” Their sinuous forms, lit from above, confound and delight the eye.
The passion to dig is what drives his life, and the beauty of the spaces he creates is its own justification. His long-term plan is simple—there isn’t one. “I don’t put any energy into being a success in the world,” Paulette admits. “My strategy is to wait for something from heaven to come along and lay it on me.”
The movie’s ending perfectly captures the beauty and the folly of Paulette’s passion. Years into work on his final, crowning achievement, a main pillar collapses, forcing him to abandon the project. But a few days later, he’s found another place to dig. The final tracking shot shows Paulette trekking up a hillside, wheelbarrow strapped to his back. The camera gradually pans out, until his form is just a speck against the landscape.
In the end, I felt a sorrow for his losses that he himself didn’t seem to feel—but I shared in the sheer joy he brought to his visionary creations.
For more information about the movie, visit cavediggerdocumentary.com.
To find out more about Ra Paulette, visit racavedigger.com.