There aren't many things more fundamental to our sense of being than the earth beneath our feet -- so much so that it's a synonym for stability ("stand your ground," "down to earth," "grounded").
Ra Paulette, though, doesn't seem to see the earth as most of us do. He looks at the earth and sees -- or, perhaps more accurately, feels -- potential: cathedrals waiting to be freed.
For 20 years, he has been quietly and often secretly carving intricate and by all accounts stunning caverns into the landscape of New Mexico -- by himself, solely with hand tools: shovel, mattock, scraper. The chambers are filled with arches and whorls and apertures that seem to sculpt the sunlight itself.
'A transformative tool'
The caves are not enormous; mostly, their square footage would be comparable to rooms or perhaps small houses. His ambitions for them are outsize, though, as he describes in a new documentary shortlisted for an Academy Award, "CaveDigger," directed by Jeffrey Karoff:
"These caves are designed as transcendent spaces. 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 inside, the within, and the without. it's a perceptual trick that brings out deep, expansive emotionality."
And when he says "transcendent," he isn't just being flowery. "I want to subject mercilessly a person to the aesthetic in a way that stimulates a deep emotionality to the point where it becomes a transformative tool. That's a big goal, but I'm ready for it."
'I don't put any energy into being a success in the world'
He doesn't do it for glory, and he certainly doesn't do it for money: When he's been paid at all for his work, he's generally earned perhaps $15 or $20 an hour.
"I don't put any energy into being a success in the world," he says. "My strategy is to wait for something from heaven to come along and lay it on me."
He has taken a few commissions, not all of which have gone well.
"Ra's not your typical person, which is what I like about him," says his close friend, ex-girlfriend and onetime patron, Liz Riedel. "He doesn't do things for himself, he does things for art. He does things for other people" -- meaning the viewer of his art, not necessarily the person paying for it.
Riedel and her husband, Shel Neymark, commissioned a piece from him that was supposed to take two months and cost $2,000. They knew what they were getting into, though: They privately doubled his estimate, figuring that Paulette being Paulette, he'd take four months and $4,000.
It took two years -- during which Riedel learned that she had cancer. She underwent grueling treatments. The couple asked Paulette many times to stop, and even believed once or twice that they'd convinced him. Still he refused to leave the project.
"When he has a shovel in his hand, he's like a coke addict with piles of coke. He just loves to keep going and going," Neymark said.
They admit, though: The work he produced for them was transcendent.
'Everyone else grew up and I didn't'
Such tensions are at the heart of Karoff's documentary. Paulette is "living the dream so you don't have to," Karoff says, but it's "not without cost."
Paulette's wife may be the one who bears the cost most, as the documentary makes clear. "Her demands of security are so reasonable," Paulette says, but they aren't demands that he shares. So her role has become the de facto breadwinner, supporting them as an advocate for hospice patients.
"Everyone else grew up and I didn't," Paulette says simply.
And at 67 years old, he says he's now "through working for other people." He'll take no more commissions; instead, he's about three years into a private project that he expects will take 10 years.
"I want people to get a break in the continuity of who they are. And in that break, a lot of things can happen: personal insights, access to enthusiasms. I've seen it happen. It's fun to watch. It keeps me digging."
Paulette's story originally came to Yahoo Homes' attention via the blog Messy Nessy Chic, where we also learned that there is actually a property for sale in New Mexico that contains two of Paulette's works.
We want to clarify, though, that the property contains only two caves, and they're a very small part of 200-plus acres for sale, contrary to the Messy Nessy Chic posting. The entire 200-acre property is available for $995,000, or just the north half or south half can be purchased for $550,000. Each half contains one of Paulette's works -- but again, to be clear, each cave is only about the size of a room, and the halves are each 100 acres. (There is also a single 6-acre lot available for $49,900, but it neither contains nor has access to the Paulette caves.) The listing agent is adamant that he will only show the property to prospective buyers who can prove that they're qualified to buy. You can see the listing on Yahoo Homes as well.