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The cave digger: Hewing art from the very landscape

Lee Cowan has the story of an artist who does his best work underground
Cave-digging artist finds inspiration underground 05:30

It seems artistic inspiration can be found throughout the New Mexico landscape -- and maybe even beneath it, as our Lee Cowan has discovered:

In the high desert of northern New Mexico, if you listen carefully, you might just hear something more than the wind. It's the underground sound of a man obsessed.

His name is Ra Paulette, who for the past 25 years -- with only his dog for company -- has been scraping and shaping New Mexico's sandstone into man-made caves of art.

"Do you think you're obsessed with cave digging?" asked Cowan.

"Would you call a child being obsessed with play?" replied Paulette. "You wouldn't use that word 'obsessed.' You know, when you're doing something you love and are drawn to it, you want to do it all the time."

He calls them his wilderness shrines -- massive in scale, poetic in their design. If his work takes your breath away, that's just what he hoped it would do.

"I see this as an environmental project; I'm trying to open up people's feelings," he said.

One small opening pales in comparison to the cavern he's dug inside. It took close to 900 hours to dig.

He sees himself as a magician playing with space both big and small, to create what he calls the "cave effect."

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He explained is as "the juxtaposition of opposites. The sense of being underground with light streaming in, the intimacy of being in a cave, yet the columns end up very large, sometimes 30, 40 feet high."

He has no degree in sculpting. He's not a structural engineer, and he's not an architect. He is simply a man who found his passion.

"Most of the wonder that I feel is in the actual making of the caves," he said. "Once they're made, I move on, if I want fresh wonder."

He's found that fresh wonder digging about a dozen caves so far, most commissioned by nearby residents who want a piece of livable art.

One cave along the Rio Grande River even has power, a wood floor, and a colorful bathtub with running water. It took Paulette two years to dig.

He charged a mere $12 an hour in labor.

"You don't do this for the money, you're not getting rich off making these beautiful places," said Cowan.

"No, it's the process, you know? I'm having the time of my life."

Amazingly, Paulette's designs have been largely unnoticed -- until recently, that is. A documentary filmmaker heard of the caves, and spent three years following Paulette as he dug.

The result was "Cavedigger, "a film so unique it was nominated for an Academy Award. Suddenly, Ra Paulette was a caveman with a following. "I'm in the big time now!" he laughed.

Realtor Tom Abrams is now selling two of Paulette's caves -- along with the 200 or so acres around them - for close to a million dollars. But Paulette won't see any of that money; it all goes to the seller.

Cowan asked, "Do you ever get lonely up here doing all this work?"

"You know, I'm never lonely," he said, showing us his latest project. He calls it his magnum opus.

"This is the largest thing I've ever done," he said. "I'm taking all the things that I've learned in all the other caves over the years and finally getting an opportunity to experiment with gilding the lily."

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His plan is not only to carve, but paint these sandstone walls, creating what he hopes will be a healing retreat -- a community gathering place, complete with a waterfall: "Half this room is going to be a pool, and there'll be seating around the bottom."

At 67, he'll be well into his 70s before he shares this cave with the world.

He hopes those who come here will find in its solitude what Ra Paulette already has: a sense of peace, and purpose.

"If there was one simple thing you wanted people to take away from being in one of your caves, what would it be?" asked Cowan.

"At least a moment, or a length of time in which they had a deeper feeling and deeper understanding of themselves, and life," he replied.

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