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Film about NM cave digger on Oscar’s shortlist

Ra Paulette, left, and his cathedral-like art caves are the subject of “CaveDigger,” a 2013 documentary by filmmaker Jeffrey Karoff, right. The film has been short-listed for an Academy Award. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Karoff)

Ra Paulette, left, and his cathedral-like art caves are the subject of “CaveDigger,” a 2013 documentary by filmmaker Jeffrey Karoff, right. The film has been short-listed for an Academy Award. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Karoff)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Ra Paulette sculpts cathedral-like caves into New Mexico’s sandstone cliffs, carving spirals, flowers and leaves into transcendent shrines.

Jeffrey Karoff’s documentary about Paulette’s obsessive life, “CaveDigger,” has been shortlisted for Best Documentary Short by the Academy Awards. Originally one of 40 submitted films, Karoff’s work is now one of eight selected. In January, the group will be culled to from three to five finalists. The film premiered in Santa Fe in July.

“I guess it’s in the semi-semi finals,” the director said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.

The film depicts Paulette’s often troubled relationships with his patrons and the price he pays for digging his archaeologist/artist creations from the earth. The artist declined to be interviewed for this story.

An interior view shows one of artist Ra Paulette’s sandstone art caves. Paulette is the subject of filmmaker Jeffrey Karoff’s 2013 documentary “CaveDigger.” (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Karoff)

An interior view shows one of artist Ra Paulette’s sandstone art caves. Paulette is the subject of filmmaker Jeffrey Karoff’s 2013 documentary “CaveDigger.” (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Karoff)

“I met Ra over 10 years ago,” Karoff said, “and he was working in an area of northern New Mexico where I have a house” near Taos. “All the caves are in that area.”

The two met in 2009 through mutual friends Shel Neymark and Liz Reidel. “They were having a cave made on their property,” Karoff continued.

The couple were exasperated because it was taking so long. Intrigued, Karoff accepted their invitation to see the project.

Paulette has dug 14 caves in New Mexico, all roughly within the same area. Patrons who commissioned them have cut off nearly all his projects over artistic differences. Paulette uses only hand tools — a pickaxe and wheelbarrow strapped to his back — and each project may take months or years to complete. Paulette’s process is wholly intuitive — he creates arches, pillars, rooms, doorways, steps, benches with carving as detailed as a cathedral.

“He starts with a mountainside,” Karoff said. “He’s using Ojo Caliente sandstone. The material that works — that is malleable and stable — only exists in this area. He has no background as a sculptor and an artist. He starts where the door is and he wheelbarrows out the materials.”

Ra Paulette works on one of his cathedral-like art caves in this still image from “CaveDigger,” a 2013 documentary by filmmaker Jeffrey Karoff. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Karoff)

Ra Paulette works on one of his cathedral-like art caves in this still image from “CaveDigger,” a 2013 documentary by filmmaker Jeffrey Karoff. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Karoff)

Born in Chicago, the 67-year-old Paulette grew up in Indiana, according to his website biography. He left school to join the Navy, then took jobs as a mailman, night watchman, janitor and auditorium attendant in San Francisco and Los Angeles. He hitchhiked around the country, eventually landing in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. Years spent in a cabin without electricity or running water convinced him he was made for rural life. He worked as a farm laborer, then moved to New Mexico in 1977 to visit an old friend.

In 1985, he moved to Dixon, becoming a “human back hoe” digging wells, outhouses and rock retaining walls. He also worked as a residential teacher for mentally disabled adults. His manual labor skills transitioned into his cave digging projects. He breaks down the movements into their simplest parts, reassembling them into the patterns he calls “the dance of digging.” Clusters of skylights illuminate the forms with the play of shadow and light.

Paulette sees his creations as regal wilderness sanctuaries created to help people connect with their deepest emotions. His work has been compared to the Spanish architect Gaudi, and land artists Goldsworthy, Smithson and De Maria.

The artist possesses an instinctive feel for space, digging into the earth until he uncovers it, Karoff said.

“He has to find the floor, which is not a normal thing to consider,” Karoff continued. “He has to know where the bottom is.”

Cave digger Ra Paulette removes a load of pulverized sandstone from one of his works in progress. Paulette is the subject of filmmaker Jeffrey Karoff’s 2013 documentary “CaveDigger.” (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Karoff)

Cave digger Ra Paulette removes a load of pulverized sandstone from one of his works in progress. Paulette is the subject of filmmaker Jeffrey Karoff’s 2013 documentary “CaveDigger.” (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Karoff)

He finished his first cave — “The Heart Chamber” — in 1985. Created on public land, it became a kind of shrine, visited by thousands. The reclusive artist filled it in and sealed it.

Karoff decided to make a film because he believed Paulette’s underground art was unique. The camera pans are nearly rhapsodic.

“The impact was visceral,” he said. “It’s like walking to the edge of the Grand Canyon.

“When I got to know Ra a little bit more, I understood this life he had chosen for himself was pretty obsessive. It became clear to me that he was doing exactly what he wanted, unlike the rest of us. And it came with a cost.”

The costs were multiple: constant conflict with patrons who wanted to tell him what to carve and give him deadlines; he was continually living on the financial edge; and his relationships were strained.

“The film is about him, it’s about caves, it’s about obsession,” Karoff said. “It’s about the landscape of New Mexico.

“In New Mexico, landscape is inescapable and it’s perpetual,” he continued. “I feel that a more primitive nature exists in New Mexico, and I mean that in the best sense.

“You probably wouldn’t find patrons in other parts of the country that would say, ‘I want to hire you for a cave.'”

“CaveDigger” will screen at the Guild Cinema, 3405 Central Ave. NE, Albuquerque on Feb. 17-19. Call 505-255-1848.

Ra Paulette and his cathedral-like art caves are the subject of “CaveDigger,” a 2013 documentary by filmmaker  Jeffrey Karoff. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Karoff)

Ra Paulette and his cathedral-like art caves are the subject of “CaveDigger,” a 2013 documentary by filmmaker
Jeffrey Karoff. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Karoff)

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