The sky seems vaulted, somehow higher above the ground than normal. It’s also intensely blue. The landscape is scrubby and sparse. Jagged yellowish-brown hills rise and fall out of the landscape. It’s not much of a canvas, it would take perhaps a madman to look at the northern hills of New Mexico and find tranquil, ethereal spaces. But, artist Ra Paulette brings exactly that out of the landscape.
Paulette has managed to scrape a living (literally) out the hills. Inspired by a small cave that some children had carved out of the soft sandstone, Paulette tried the process for himself. Using only hand tools, Paulette carved what he called a “heart chamber.” He’s since made 12 of these caves, most of them commissions on private property. But his ultimate aim is artistic and transformative.
Hunched, small, and spry, Paulette, who is now 71 years old, knows that he will not be able to continue the physical labor the caves take. When he begins a cave, Paulette fashions a makeshift backpack for a wheelbarrow and carries it out to the site, picks a spot that looks good, and starts digging into the earth. The sandstone crumbles as he digs, giving way and allowing Paulette to carve intricate designs in a matter of hours.
The caves can take years to complete. Paulette works like a man possessed, going and going until the cave “feels” finished. He has frustrated patrons with his loose planning and long schedules.
When finished, the caves are bone white and seem organically grown. Intricate interlocking patterns flow through the spaces. Benches, nooks, and insets for candles are carved into the cave’s walls, providing calm spots for meditation. Open holes in the ceiling and sometimes the walls provide natural light, which somehow losses the harshness it possesses outside and becomes soft against the cave walls.
The spaces feel earthy and light. Not at all oppressive or foreboding.
In the documentary movie about Paulette’s work, Cavedigger, Paulette says the caves should provide people with a space to “Get break from the continuity of who they are.”
In a way, the caves parallel traveling. The version of you on a journey is a different version than your everyday self. Paulette taps into the transformative power of movement, of seeing new things and doing things you wouldn’t normally do.
If you get the chance, these caves are worth traveling to.