Cave Notes Southwest Photographic

Cave Notes
"Work in Progress" - 6/95, Embudo, N.M.

Paragraph     In an attempt to avoid repeating myself, I present this brief history in response to the questions I am continually asked about my Cave Project in Embudo:

Paragraph     I grew up in Santa Fe which was then a small dusty village with a mostly Hispanic population. My father built a house way out of town, surrounded only with open prairie and mountain vistas, which is now near the intersection of St. Francis Drive and San Mateo Road! I went away to a military high school and then college. After several majors in the sciences I began studying Art and was quickly rewarded as a painter. I exhibited mostly in New York and California and taught at several colleges. I moved back to New Mexico to take care of my parents who had long term health problems.

Paragraph     I originally bought about 40 acres with an old adobe in Embudo in late 1986 so that some friends could have some land to homestead. As I began to fix up the property, which we named "Paradise", I found the place to be an essential retreat from the crazy development in Santa Fe. I have always been a workaholic and Embudo offered an endless variety of problems to solve. The Cave began as a solution to one of those problems.

Paragraph     The original old adobe was set into a very steep sandy hill which would erode into the back wall of the house when it rained. I bought a backhoe and began moving the hill back away from the house. While pushing the dirt around the house to make the terraces in front, I began digging a small cave into the cliff with the backhoe. I had no plan at that time except to explore and perhaps to create a small cool storage space. This was around the end of 1987 when I brought my friends, Ottmar and Stefan Liebert, out from Boston. For entertainment we would dig in the hill.

Paragraph     Over the next year I began fixing up the house, and since the cliff wall that I had created remained stable, I decided to incorporate it into my house. Reagan was President and the showdown with Russia prompted me to see the cave as a potential shelter. So I brought in the essentials for living underground: air, water, and solar power.

Paragraph     The geology in the Embudo area is primarily the result of one of the Earth's largest volcanoes. The Jemez mountains are what remains of its base. I have had conflicting opinions on the various time lines, but basically the "sand" in the cave is tufa which is the accumulated volcanic ash from hundreds of thousands of years, settling to the bottom of what was a giant lake bed. The tufa is at least two thousand feet deep in the area. The basalt lava rock you see on the surface was scattered around the world when the volcano finally blew up. The reason you see some of this rock deep beneath the surface is because the Rio Grande follows a large fault line and earthquakes broke and shifted the area many times. Thus in the cave you will also see the strata broken and shifted and set about at many angles off of its horizontal origins. The small white deposits are accumulations or early animal (sea) life and the clay (dark reddish brown) layers are from periods of vegetation when the volcano must have been dormant.

Paragraph     The area behind the house where I started the cave was dry and faulty and the walls would cave in on me. So I dug the cave in circles so I would have a way out, in case of a cave in, and I reinforced the walls with rebar, remesh, stucco netting and concrete which is now painted white. The process of reinforcement involved the efforts of many workers and became prohibitively expensive, so I worked on developing areas and spaces that would function without reinforcement. So far the cave has cost about $70,000, mostly for labor. In fact much of the cave has been created to give work to local people in need. As many as fifty different people have worked in the cave. Most of the actual digging (excepting myself) has been performed by Robert Paulette (A.K.A "Ra") who is well known for his own cave which was on the mesa above. Based on the total paid hours I have calculated that the actual digging only amounts to one man working 40 hours a week for about 100 weeks. The costs have been low considering the amount of space involved. I do not know how many square feet the cave occupies, or the cubic volume of the earth removed, but the cave covers over an acre and a half horizontally and sixty feet vertically. An interesting fact is that for every cubic foot of cave created, three cubic feet of earth are taken out to be disposed of. In fact the removal and disposal are more work than the actual digging. The excavated dirt has been useful for various building purposes including walls, floors, terraces and roads.

Paragraph     The overall design has changed many times to effect different purposes. Since I had no intention of going this far with the project when I began, the process of development has been necessarily organic and often changing. For instance, I started out making a storage space and each time I expanded the cave I planed to put in storage. But each storage space has become something else: a bedroom, a sound space, a meditation chamber, a gallery etc. The cave reflects my own challenge to find a balance between my needs for functional assets vs. creative or fantasy experiences. This may explain why I cannot see any part of the cave as finished. The cave always offers me far more questions than answers. There are very few parts of the cave that I do not plan to change. As a painter intrigued with appearances and illusion, the whole cave appears to me as a blank canvas at this point.

Paragraph     Functionally the cave is designed to serve two primary purposes: One is to provide a comfortable non-consuming living climate. By tying my living space to the earth there is a wonderful moderating influence on temperature and humidity. I do not tolerate heat well, and in an area where summer daily temperatures generally exceed 100°F in the shade, the cave offers relief with an average of 60°. Because of the great mass of the hill, the cave reaches its maximum average temperature (about 64°) around December and its minimum (about 52°) in May. (The native temperature of the ground here, whether 5 or 50 feet below the surface, is about 50-52° with a frost-line of only a few inches! Who said the Earth was 55°?) Because I am located on a south facing slope and narrowing point in a valley, I can use the prevailing air currents to heat or cool the house by opening or closing doors or vents. The cave provides an ideal humidity level to the house of around 60%, which is especially rare and beneficial in the New Mexico winters. Also, since I originally built my house as a retreat which would be vacant for long periods of time, the cave gives the house energy self- sufficiency with a record low temperature of 50° during a month long absence in the depths of winter and a high of 82° (except when people leave the doors open during the summer!).

Paragraph     The second primary function of the cave design evolves from my ideal for a residence: That is to provide 24 hour functionality and privacy to each type of living space. Since I am an inconsistent insomniac and workaholic, I like to be able to use each space whenever and however I want without disrupting the "normal" patterns of others. Therefore the ends of the cave (north/south/east/west) are where the "bedrooms"(4-6 private spaces) are to be located. Unfortunately, at this point, I have been unable to complete any of the bedrooms because I need to use the exits (entrances) to the cave for moving the large quantities of material in and out of the cave.

Paragraph     Obviously I am involved with less functional aspects of the cave project, like stimulating the imagination and experience of others. At this point I see the cave as an Art experience/ museum in a world that is losing (or ignoring) its creative imagination/soul. In today's rectangular compartmentalized world I hope you will discover here the curvy maze of your unconscious. I also hope you will explore the magic of my land/environment, over the mesa and along the river, which actually attracts and stimulates more of my creative time and energy than the cave. If not for the night and the extremes of climate, I would probably put most of my time in Embudo into the landscape instead of the underground.

Paragraph     My greatest challenge/interest is determining what is possible within each area of the cave that I encounter. Each area presents it own characteristics and problems, and ultimately lessons and suggestions for inquiry. The material has taught me what I can or can not do. For instance, the prevailing oval shape of the caves results from the mountain roughly forming that shape when weak areas collapsed. The arabesque ceilings resulted from the need to create conduits for the power and lights. The deeper I go, the softer, dryer, and thus less stable the tufa becomes. The detailed carving of the West caves is possible because they are close to the surface and are therefore wetter and denser. This allowed me greater latitude to explore various styles and esthetics and create spaces for some of my art collection. Most recently my daughter Scarlet, and her friends, with their games of Hide-n-Seek and Chase and primitive carvings, have had the greatest influence on my designs, such as giving each space at least two exits. I work to create as many different kinds of experiences as the cave will allow, though I do not wish to define what those experiences should be. I feel it is important that each person be allowed to develop their own unique responses. Therefore I choose to keep my personal (spiritual) experiences to myself.

Paragraph     Like any sculptural material, the mountain defines the limitations within which I must work, and each part of the cave suggests its own possibilities for development. Over the years the project has evolved from a simple survival concept to a functional design process, and finally an exploration of my esthetics and fantasies. It has become a search for possibilities and potential relationships within my way of perceiving and understanding. I am motivated primarily by my curiosity and my need to work creatively, both mentally and physically. The cave offers me an endless process of self discovery. I could say that I am not making the cave, but rather the cave is making me. What you see is just a beginning, like the stretching of a canvas to be painted upon: work in progress!


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By: Don Werthmann
Writer, Southwest Photographic
Fall 1996

     Calvin Klein found them so photogenic he picked them for a fashion shoot. PBS considered them unique enough for a documentary. Even so, the basalt and tufa caves in Embudo, New Mexico - dug by an eccentric artist who prefers to be known only by his initials MER - are one of northern New Mexico's best kept secrets. MER started digging into the cliffs behind his old adobe home in Embudo in 1987. What began as a simple hole that could serve as cold storage for vegetables, expanded into a bomb shelter on which he staked his very survival during the Reagan-Bush years. Eight years later, the labyrinthian home meanders over an acre and half of land, measured horizontally, and sixty feet vertically. A mind-bending shape-shifting artwork itself, it also serves as an informal art museum, displaying works by Terry Allen, Angelica Baesch, John Connell and other artists whose pieces are too erotic, too political or just too tough for ordinary venues.

     Although MER seeks no publicity, nearly everyone who stops by the microbrewery at Embudo Station hears about his project. Strangers wander in, especially during the summer when MER formally opens the place on Sundays.
Although its earliest parts are reinforced with rebar, remesh, stucco netting and concrete painted white, MER now digs in areas that need no reinforcement. To date, the cave has cost about $70,000, mostly for labor, with a lot of the work being done by a friend with the Egyptian name of RA. MER has no idea how many cubic feet have been shoveled out so far but says that he "removes three cubic feet of earth for every one cubic foot of space. Explain that!" A self-declared "insomniac and workaholic," MER continues to carve out womb-like bedrooms, meditation chambers, lofts and tunnels, most of which are lit by day with skylights and portholes. It's a work in progress in which any part may be altered at any time.

     "As a painter intrigued with appearances and illusion, the whole cave appears to me as a blank canvas," he says.

      And a sacred space for meditation, fantasy and renewal. As for the meaning of those initials, MER, they stand for the initials of the artist's given name-and more. The word "mer" denotes counter-rotating fields of light and is well known to New Age followers of the ancient Egyptian mystery schools as a component of the spinning star tetrahedron called the MerKa-Ba, a time-space vehicle that can transport beings to other dimensional levels.

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