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Stairway to heaven

May 18th, 2009 | Posted by Davey in 16-Brazil

One couldn’t visit Rio without a snapshot of Escadaria Selaron, a set of world-famous stairs in between the Santa Teresa and Lapa neighbourhoods.  They are the work of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selaron who claims it is his tribute to the Brazilian people.

In 1983, after travelling, living and working as a painter and sculptor in over 50 countries around the world he decided to settle in Brazil.  In 1990, on a whim, he began renovating the dilapidated 125 metre, 215-step stairway which runs past his front door. Neighbours mocked him for his choice of colours. He covered the steps in fragments of blue, green and yellow tiles – the colours of the Brazilian flag.

Today, the stairway has become one of Rio’s must-see tourist destinations. It has been featured in commercials for Coke-Cola, American Express and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Photographers from National Geographic, Wallpaper and even Playboy have all clamoured for a shot of the artist and his work. Snoop-Dog and U2 have also shot some video too.

Selaron, now 57, is mostly un-phased by the attention, as the project has always been more personal than professional. No sooner has the stairway been ‘finished,’ than Selaron embarks upon yet another ‘section,’ constantly chopping and changing the tiles.  One cannot miss the prolific motif of a pregnant African woman running throughout the tiles, some 300-odd of which have been hand-painted by Selaron and incorporated into his work. It’s a moot point which Selaron prefers not to discuss.

‘A personal problem,’ is all he will say. ‘In my past.

Such is the drive of the artist that he plunges the little money that he earns selling his paintings back into the stairs. Since 1977, he says, to get by he has sold an estimated 25,000 portraits all featuring the same pregnant woman.

When he began working on the stairs, Selaron used any materials he could find – leftovers from construction sites, bits and pieces he found foraging though Rio’s ample urban waste. These days, however, he uses tiles donated to him and sent to him from over 60 countries across the world.

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