For the past 25 years, Ra Paulette has been scraping and shaping New Mexico’s sandstone into man-made caves of art. Paulette, an artist without academic training, has become a freethinking sculptor who maximizes the use of negative space. He has spent decades pursuing his obsession as he has learned things that are only perfected in practice; a careful and solitary doer, he has bettered his construction techniques via trial and error as he has, at the same time, enhanced the aesthetic impact of his work.
A Midwestern native raised in the town of La Porte in northern Indiana, Paulette was the oldest of four children. He dropped out of school and went on to serve four years on a Navy flagship during the Vietnam War. Afterward, he roamed around the United States, living in cities big and small in addition to working on farms. In 1977, he settled in Embudo, a town located between Santa Fe and Taos, near Carson National Forest, where he worked as a counselor for the developmentally disabled, a landscaper, and a pursuer of inner peace.
Paulette’s interest in caves began when he noticed a cave that teenagers had clawed out of the local Ojo Caliente sandstone. Soon after, he became fixated on the idea of digging a cave of his own. One of his first known caves was called the Heart Chamber, which was furtively carved on property owned by the Bureau of Land Management in the Rio Grande Gorge. Initially built as a private retreat, it soon became a symbolic place to visit among those who knew the area.
Of the caves, Paulette has written: “Manual labor is the foundation of my self-expression. To do it well, to do it beautifully, is a ‘whole-person’ activity, engaging mental and emotional strengths as well as physical strength. When digging and excavating the caves I break down all the movements into their simplest parts and reassemble them into the most efficient patterns and strategies that will accomplish the task while maintaining bodily ease. Like a dancer, I ‘feel’ the body and its movement in a conscious way. I’m fond of calling this ‘the dance of digging,’ and it is the secret of how this old man can get so much done.”
Some visitors perceive Paulette’s caves as sanctuaries for prayer and meditation while others perceive them as works of art. For most, it is a blend of both. For Paulette, his work is very much a meditative process. He begins sculpting each cave without any sort of blueprint, and instead relies on his feelings and sensations while exploring a space. As Paulette digs, first down and then across, finally breaching up to draw sunlight into each room, he allows the ambient vibrations to direct and redirect his process and expressions. Paulette believes that the caves act as spiritual metaphors for the souls existing within our limitless universe, a link that Paulette both uses himself and sees as a tool for healing others.
In 2013, a property and sculpture by Paulette went up for sale. He calls this work the Tree of Human Kindness. Located between Santa Fe and Taos on a 208-acre lot, the property is listed for $775,000. The north and south halves of the lot can be purchased separately or fourteen subdivided lots are available individually. As of late 2015, the property had not yet sold.
As of 2014, Paulette is known to have carved 14 caves; it is rumored that he is working on yet another.