*Editor's Note: The following story, from our February 2014 issue, was published before the shortlisted Oscar Nominations were announced. CaveDigger has been nominated for a 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Film.
Jeffrey Karoff was enjoying pancakes at a community fund-raiser in 2000 when a neighbor said something that sounded absurd: A local artist was digging a cave for him. Intrigued, Karoff and his wife paid a visit. Where they might have expected a jagged hole in the northern New Mexico dirt, they instead marveled at soaring walls buffed to an alabaster finish; bas-relief sculptures that carried them between the arches separating rooms; skylights luring sunshine onto long-buried earth.
“It was shocking,” Karoff said. “Not a lot of art has that kind of impact.”
Eventually, furniture, bookshelves, and a wooden front door completed the cave—one part underground cathedral, one part guesthouse on acid.
A Los Angeles–based producer of commercials, Karoff thought he might have found a fitting topic for his first documentary. It took 13 years, but CaveDigger, his 39-minute debut, has become a favorite among indie aficionados. Besides film-fest awards, it scored a coveted spot on the short list for this year’s Academy Award nominations. It also brought a sliver of stardom to Ra Paulette, 67, a strictly sui generis sculptor of negative space.
“The ancient people, religious people, would dig,” Paulette says in the film. Back then, their goal was not unlike his is now: “Digging a hole in the ground and finding God in that hole.” Even so, he quips, “I don’t think they got into it like I have.”
That’s no understatement. Working alone but for the company of Bugsy the Cave Dog and using only hand tools, Paulette brutalizes his body in pursuit of an artistic ideal that few people will ever see. His caves sit on private property, and he and Karoff, a part-time New Mexico resident, guard their locations. For most of us, CaveDigger offers the only glimpse we’ll ever get.
Given that tantalizing mix of majesty and mystery, Karoff could have made a compelling film simply by focusing on Paulette’s painstaking process, from virgin hillside to Holy Batcave. But he was more intrigued with how Paulette weathers the eternalgulf between an artist’s desire to create and his need to eat. Not only does he risk his life inside his creations, but Paulette rarely makes enough money off them to pay his bills, and the film shows the stress that places on his marriage. Few of his caves have ever reached completion, most of them stalling out when Paulette’s vision slams into the property owners’ budgets, dreams, and egos.
Karoff’s interviews with semi-satisfied clients elicit some of the film’s chuckles—but they’re rueful ones. You can’t help wondering what each cave might have been without the contretemps. (See also: Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo arguing with Rex Harrison’s Pope Julius II in The Agony and the Ecstasy.)
“I thought this had the potential for something terrific on film,” Karoff said. “Here’s a guy doing art in the middle of nowhere and dealing with the oldest of universal conflicts between art and finance. As I got to know Ra more, all of this was part and parcel of the cost of his obsession.”
A self-taught “human backhoe,” Paulette has spent decades learning “things that can’t be taught.” A Chicago native raised in northern Indiana, he dropped out of college and then served four years on a Navy flagship during the Vietnam War. Afterwards, he wandered the country and worked as a laborer, mostly on farms. Eventually he settled in Embudo, melding roles as a landscaper, counselor for developmentally disabled people, and pursuer of inner peace.
About 25 years ago, he noticed a small cave that teenagers had clawed out of Ojo Caliente sandstone. Soon he was hooked on digging his own caves. Among his first was the Heart Chamber, clandestinely carved on Bureau of Land Management property in the Rio Grande Gorge. Intended as a personal getaway, it became a shrine among hikers in the know.
“It was amazing,” Paulette said in an interview. “There were all different kinds of religious expressions—crosses, Hindu icons, Native American fetishes, Buddhist statues, all side by side.”
People came by the hundreds. Paulette feared for their safety. “Most painters don’t have to worry that the painting is going to fall off the wall and crush the patron,” he said. He confessed his cave sin to the BLM and got a small stipend to refill it, wheelbarrow load by wheelbarrow load. Another cave was a popular attraction for lodgers at the now-closed Rancho de San Juan Country Inn, near Ojo Caliente. Its 20-foot ceilings complemented mirror-topped pedestals that reflected the sky, mimicking subterranean pools.
These days, the 67-year-old digger toils away on what he calls Magnum Opus 2, a cave created only for himself, with no interference from a patron. The film’s first depiction of him underscores what kind of effort it takes. In the quiet of a mountain morning, he straps a wheelbarrow onto a sled-like device. He hoists the awkward assemblage onto his back, then moves with a dancer’s grace across a rock-strewn landscape. Working with mattocks, shovels, and scrapers, he pits his intent against a cliff that barely relents. One rock gives way, then a spray of gravel. Eventually, a barrow’s worth of material bumps to a newborn tailings pile. Sisyphus might come to mind, but for Paulette, this is meditation.
“When I’m doing this dance of labor, I’m totally engrossed in it,” he said. “I’m feeling my body. I give myself over to it. It’s a type of surrender, a lack of thinking about it, just going into the process. That’s my meditative process. I find stillness in action.”
He attacks his caves without blueprint but by feel, digging down and across, then breaching up to draw sunlight into each room. The caves thus become spiritual metaphors of the rooted soul in a limitless universe, a connection that Paulette sees as a tool for healing others. With the film as an introduction, he has begun talking with foundations and agencies about how his cave could deliver an uplifting experience to people trapped within their circumstances. Wary of revealing details before their time, he says simply, “I’m excited. I’m on an adventure here.”
CaveDigger has already won numerous awards at events like the San Antonio Film Festival, Maui Film Festival, and European Independent Film Festival, and has played everywhere from Barcelona, Spain, to Bellingham, Washington. In January, Karoff was to find out whether it earned an Oscar nomination; the awards ceremony is in March. In the meantime, he’s talking with a TV network about a national broadcast, and a DVD release could follow.
His camera was there the day Paulette began digging Magnum Opus 2, and those first swats at the hill end the film on a mindboggling note. After wiggling his equipment up a slope, Paulette swings his mattock at the soil. The camera pulls back slowly, revealing boulders, junipers, a ridgeline above the digger, a valley below him that grows deeper and still deeper. As a New Mexico landscape overtakes the screen, Paulette disappears into a dot, the soundtrack steady on the rhythmic clang of his blade hitting rock. It could signify a church bell or a chain gang, heaven or hell, the agony and the ecstasy. Somewhere in that wide-angle frame, one man combines backbreaking work with soul-freeing intent, burrowing deep into the earth so that his spirit might soar.
Kate Nelson is the author of Helen Hardin: A Straight Line Curved (Little Standing Spuce Publishing, 2012). She reported on the photography of Robert Christensen in the November 2013 issue.