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.
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.