The highlight of Rio de Janeiro, for me at least, was not walking the iconic beaches of Copacabana, Leblon and Ipanema, the stunning views from the Sugarloaf cable car, the Christ Redeemer statue or the wonderful, but admittedly expensive, craft-beer. It was a set of stairs.
The Escadaria Selarón is the handiwork of Chilean artist Jorge Selarón, who lived in the hill-side community of Santa Teresa from 1983 to his death in 2013. In 1990, he began to renovate a set of dilapidated steps near his home on a whim using broken tiles and hand-painted bathtub porcelain lifted from construction sites and broken mirrors scavenged from landfills. Upon the completion of his original venture, Selarón set his gaze on beautifying another staircase a few feet away. His side-project soon blossomed into a lifetime obsession; he dedicated twenty-three years of his life to what became his magnum-opus.
Initially Selarón funded his project by selling paintings of an enigmatic pregnant African woman but, as word of his art spread, he began receiving donations of hand-painted tiles from around the globe. Over the years, the steps spidered across the community, incorporating thousands of colourful tiles from dozens of countries on every continent, all carefully mortared into the stairs by Selarón himself. He dedicated his work to the people of Rio de Janeiro and viewed the stairs as a living work of art stating that his labour of love would only “end on the day of my death.” Selarón’s labours ended early on the morning of January 10, 2013 when his body was found soaked in paint thinner and burned at the foot of the staircase. Selarón literally lived, worked and died surrounded by his art.
We visited Santa Teresa and the Escadaria Selarón on our final day in Rio after almost deciding to skip it in favour of a beach-day. The minute we hopped out of the taxi (well…as much as you can hop out of a taxi when an infant is involved) we instantly knew we’d made the right decision. The kaleidoscope of colours and textures combined with the killer views from the top was mesmerizing. We spent several hours participating in what was essentially a scavenger hunt on an obstacle course - hunting for tiles while politely attempting to avoid photo-bombing other tourist’s pictures. Donated tiles displayed scenes from a multiplicity of landscapes and countries, from Switzerland to Swaziland, Australia to Albania, Canada to Costa Rica - if you can think of a country, you’d probably be able to find a tile from there if you searched hard enough!
While we scoured the staircase, I couldn’t help but be awed and inspired by Selarón’s dedication to his craft. The immeasurable amounts of time, energy and sweat required to construct and constantly reinvent such an intricate, functional and unique piece of art was humbling and thought-provoking. I was reminded of the architects, stone-masons and carvers of the Middle Ages who devoted their entire lives to constructing a single cathedral knowing that they would likely die before its completion. There is something incredibly noble and honourable about such endeavours. I can hardly imagine being so invested in a single project that I would literally dedicate my life to it - I have enough trouble dedicating myself adequately to a five day work-week!
In some ways, Selarón’s staircase is the carioca equivalent of those cavernous cathedrals of Christianity. While Europe’s churches are somberly dedicated to the worship of God, the Escadaria Selarón was described by Selarón as a “tribute to the Brazilian people.” While cathedrals were designed encourage awe-filled worship by naturally raising heads of the congregation to intricately carved ceilings and stained-glass arches, Selarón’s masterpiece celebrates the diversity, playfulness, and beauty of the city and people of Rio de Janeiro with a riot of colours.
When we departed the next day and the plane ascended over the jumbled metropolis of Rio de Janeiro, it wasn’t the beaches, views or food that I knew I would remember – it was those stairs. For me at least, Jorge Selarón had left his mark.