The Art of Secret Caverns
Cobleskill, New York
In Paleolithic times, artists went deep into Europe’s caves to mark the walls with cryptic and beautiful paintings. These masterpieces were hidden, unvisited, for thousands of years — and that’s probably because early humans had no concept of a billboard. In modern times, the evolved cave artists at Secret Caverns in Cobleskill, New York, know that the cave should be left in its pristine state, and that a better canvas is a 30×20-foot piece of plywood propped up along a highway.
Todd DelMarter in the bathroom.
While the subterranean Michelangelos of prehistory are nameless, we know precisely who to praise when it comes to Secret Caverns’ art-cosmology of spaceships, dinosaurs, yeti, and jackalopes: master painters Todd DelMarter and Kurt Piller, and bantam-rooster-of-a-cave-owner R.J. “Caveman” Mallery.
“R.J.’s lack of taste is fundamental in allowing us to do this,” said Kurt.
“Not only is it important to have a patron who will support your art, but who will support your crappy art.”
It began, as best as Todd and Kurt can remember, around 1989.
They were very young men, working as tour guides at Secret Caverns, when they talked R.J. into letting them hand-paint a billboard on nearby US 20. Titled, “Things You Won’t See at Secret Caverns,” it featured a bloody clown with a hatchet, a Grateful Dead skeleton, and a flying monkey.
Secret Caverns billboard appealing to recent busloads of Chinese tourists.
“We’re a little business,” said R.J., justifying his decision, “so you gotta be different and interesting or you die.” He encouraged Todd and Kurt to paint more billboards, and they obliged by creating slogans so bad and imagery so incomprehensible that no corporate franchise would want to steal them.
“Like a Limestone Cowboy” proclaims one billboard. “Superior cavity protection… Now even cavier” promises another. “Extra Terrestrial… the Greatest Show in the Earth,” declares a third, whose iconography includes a parachuting cow, a prehistoric ammonite on a unicycle, a DEVO energy dome with feet, and the Secret Caverns Cool Caveman hoisting barbells labeled, “A Ton ‘O Fun.”
Wayward explorer cow at the discovery hole.
The Secret Caverns lodge itself, rebuilt after a mysterious fire in 1995, is one big work of art. Visitors enter through the mouth of a half-skeletal 80-foot-wide bat, and encounter a day-glo mural of earth’s prehistory and the mummified remains of Secret Caverns’ first visitor. Todd and Kurt have covered the bathrooms, floor through ceiling, with a menagerie of painted dinosaurs, Neanderthals, and cows. A floor grid in front of the men’s room urinal progressively extends: “Novice, Professional, Tour Guide” — or it did until worn away by corrosive overuse after only a couple of summer seasons.
“At this point you’d need a hazmat suit to repaint that floor,” said Todd. “We probably won’t be able to build there for another 20 years.”
Out back, life-size comic renderings of the cows “Floyd Cowlins” and “Emily Davis Moobly” flail in terror next to the hole into which they tumbled in 1928, revealing the entrance to the cave. Their gag-art bulging eyeballs and ragged teeth, said Todd, were inspired by his reading of too many Mad magazines as a child (Floyd is a nod to cave explorer Floyd Collins; Emily is a riff on a real spelunker with a broken leg rescued in 1991 from deep in a New Mexico cave).
Classic Rock tribute billboard is a “Stairway to the Dark Side of the Earth.”
Secret Caverns billboards fan out along the surrounding highways, tempting travelers with a bedeviling array of bats, dragons, Space Invader aliens, renderings of the Secret Caverns “100 Foot Underground Waterfall,” and large arrows faithfully pointing the way. Some billboards are exclusively the work of Todd or Kurt, others are combined efforts.
Nuclear attack refuge sign in the lodge.
“When it’s just one person it might be vaguely coherent,” said Kurt. “The collaborations are where it gets really weird. I never would have put pyramids with eyeballs floating on clouds, or a phalanx of General Lees from The Dukes of Hazzard flying over a volcano, if I hadn’t been working with Todd.”
Neither Kurt, Todd, nor R.J. know exactly how many Secret Cavern billboards are out there. Old ones collapse (or are obliterated by wayward cars), new ones are built in new spots, some of the smaller signs are stolen, many simply get repainted with new ideas. The greatest mass of signs stands along Caverns Road, winding two miles from Hwy 7 to the lodge, directly past arch-rival mega-cave Howe Caverns, providing a near-ceaseless barrage of imagery, slogans, and enticements, while deftly avoiding flavor-of-the-month pop culture references in favor of Todd and Kurt’s custom cosmology.
“Howe Caverns,” said Todd, “is the lovely bride at the wedding. Secret Caverns is the embarrassing drunken uncle at the reception. But that’s okay. We’ve got something they don’t have — a grid on the floor in front of the urinal.”
(Actually, touring the cave at Secret Caverns is a ton ‘o fun, too — we recommend it highly — with formations such as “Giant’s False Teeth” and “Bob Marley’s Evil Twin” and whatever else the guides can come up with on that day).
Cave Moses leads dinosaurs out of the Babylon passage.
“We have a symbiotic relationship with those signs,” said Kurt. “It’s 90 degrees, 100 percent humidity, and I’m out there scraping, sweating, getting sun burnt, and then I realize: there’s no place I would rather be right now than doing this, painting signs for Secret Caverns.”
Todd, remembering a dark time when he had a real job, expressed similar feelings. “Every day I was sitting behind a desk with a suit and tie, thinking about painting signs for R.J.,” he said. “It turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened in my life.”
Todd and Kurt labor on, creating outsider art ignored by the arbiters of outsider taste in places like New York and L.A. “It’s a remote location,” said Kurt of Secret Caverns, “on the forbidden plateau, forgotten by time, that is Schoharie County. But we’re okay with that. We long ago reconciled ourselves to being hell-bent for obscurity.”
“We did at one time look into trying to move the cave to a major metropolitan area,” said Todd. “But it was impractical.”