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Sao Paulo family has long history on Brazilian art scene

The Silvas are a rare working-class family who broke into elite cultural circles.

SAO PAULO, Brazil — The sloped yard littered with pulverized construction material and guarded by a yelping red-haired mutt looks like a typical family compound in the over-populated northern zone of Sao Paulo.

But inside it's instantly apparent the Silvas aren't an average working-class family: bright paintings of traditional Brazilian scenes cover the walls; sculptures of figures performing capoeira line the shelves.

An 18-sibling family grew up here, raised by a mother, Maria Trindade de Almeida Silva, who was both a housewife and an artist. Ten of the siblings ended up making at least some money as artists, said Joao, at 77, the eldest still living in the compound. But at most, their paintings sell for about $500.

“There are some people who paint for money,” said Conceicao, one of the four remaining siblings still living there.

“Not us,” said Joao. “It’s something we were born with.”

“If I don’t paint,” said Efigenia, “I feel that something is missing.”

The other sister, Natalia, writes poetry, but unlike the first three does not sell her work.

Sometimes, schoolchildren come through on field trips. When they come from the pre-school down the block, it’s especially meaningful: the school is named after Vicente Paula da Silva, another sibling-artist who died in 1980.

Sao Paulo may be a vibrant cultural city, but breaking into that culture often requires an elite education or connections, which makes the Silva family’s story more incredible. None of them has much formal training, and none was able to make a living purely an artist.

All had careers in relatively low-paid jobs. Joao, for example, used to be a driver for the city’s health department.

In his old age, he is finally making a decent amount of money from his art. He currently is one of the featured artists at an exhibition at Museu Florestal Octavio Vecchi, a museum in a Sao Paulo state park, where his wood sculptures are on display. Last week, Conceicao was packing up two paintings to send to an exposition in Piracicaba, a city in the interior of the state.

The family was originally from Minas Gerais state, but they moved to Sao Paulo in the 1940s, and in about 1950 settled in their current location, a neighborhood called Casa Verde Alta.

“There were only two or three houses,” said Efigenia, who was about 12 then. “Just fireflies, snakes, frogs and spiders. There wasn’t electricity. When you saw a light, it had to be a passing car.”