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Rio de Janeiro - The candy-colored steps of a staircase in Rio's bohemian neighborhood of Lapa were the life work of Chilean artist Jorge Selaron and a symbol of his adopted city. On this gray, rainy Thursday, they became his memorial.
The painter, who turned the 215 steps into a kaleidoscope of brightly hued tiles from all over the world, transforming a dingy, urine-scented alley and stairs into a rambunctious “tribute to the Brazilian people,” was found dead on his masterpiece.
Rio de Janeiro police discovered his body in front of his house Thursday, one of the humble colonials that flank the staircase as it ascends into the St. Teresa Convent above. Visitors dropped flowers and tried to light candles in the blustery weather on his doorstep.
Investigators would not disclose the cause of death and were not discarding murder. Calls for additional comment from police were not returned.
Neighbors, friends and strangers alike were in shock over the death of a man who may have been born abroad, but whose open, carefree manner and riotous use of color came to represent the best of Rio. In 2005, the staircase became a city landmark and the artist was declared an honorary Carioca, as Rio residents are known.
“We can speak of Lapa before and after Selaron. He changed the face of Rio. His death is something brutish, that makes no sense,” said Jocimar Batista de Jesus, aka “Mestre Duda Pirata,” a capoeira master who also lives along the steps and shared many a beer with the artist over decades.
The staircase project began in 1990, when Selaron, born in 1947, began tiling the steps and collecting old porcelain bathtubs to use as planters along the sides.
“He had no resources, no support from the city,” said Jesus. “The neighbors helped as they could. I brought him tiles from my trips, from Spain, Holland, as I traveled. As it grew, people began to contribute, to send him tiles, to bring them to Rio when they came to visit.”
Crowded in a corner are tiles showing a woman in traditional dress from Minho, Portugal, next to a Buddha in seated lotus position, next to a depiction of St. Jorge slaying a dragon. A few steps ahead, Indian deities fan out around a tile representing the principal sites of Berlin. Farther up are tiles showing Bob Marley, antique French tiles and others with flowing Arabic calligraphy, all flanked by the flaming red and eye-popping yellow Selaron chose as the dominant colors.
The artist himself, unmistakable with his bushy mutton chop mustache, was always around, said tour guide Alejandro Martin Barreira.
Often attired in the quintessential carioca outfit of flip-flops and board shorts, and outgoing to the point of offering to take pictures with tourists even before they asked, Selaron was a local character as picturesque and well-loved as his work.
He'd make a little money selling other paintings to people visiting the steps.
“Here in Lapa everyone knew him; he was the face of this bohemian, artistic neighborhood,” said Barreira. “He was a simple man, who loved this life, sitting here, watching the kids play, chatting people up.”
A mysterious image pops up in all of Selaron's work - a hugely pregnant black woman, often shown holding a fish. Her pictures appear throughout the stairs, some of them discreet, some monumental. In one painting that spans several tiles, Selaron gives himself, mutton chops and all, the same pregnant belly and prominent breasts, along with a sign that says, “Brazil, I love you.”
The artist introduces the character to visitors in his own words, painted, of course, on a tile: “On the 7th of December of 1999, I was moved to tears. All that was needed was for me to paint the pregnant woman who is in all my paintings.”
He never revealed who she was, writing only that it was a personal matter. With that last touch, he ran out of room. So he started substituting the tiles, he explained, turning the staircase into a fluid, evolving piece, perennially changing to reflect the interests, origins or obsessions of contributors, with Selaron first among them.
The staircase that was born of this “great folly,” as he wrote on a tile, is full of stories, notes, poignant mementos of those who pass by and leave something of themselves.
In one, Selaron thanked a friend for helping out with the tiling. Elsewhere, proud mother Jandira announced the birth of her son Bruno. In one tile, Selaron apologized to his landlady, Dona Elena, for having neglected to pay rent during the years he spent working on the staircase.
“I hope you understand,” he pleaded in a piece decorated with the omnipresent pregnant woman.
Selaron meant the work to last a lifetime.
“I will only end this mad and singular dream on the last day of my life,” he wrote on the wall.
Several steps above, an anonymous contributor answered, in simple handwriting on a plain tile painted in the green and yellow of the Brazilian flag: “Obrigado, Selaron.” - Thank you, Selaron.