Sao Paulo family has long history on Brazilian art scene

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.”

In the 1960s, the artist Silvas — including their mother, who painted until she went blind in the 1990s before dying in 1996 — were active in the scene in Embu, a town outside Sao Paulo that has long been a hotbed for artists and still attracts thousands of tourists a weekend to its art fairs.

Although the work they do is normally classified as naive art, Joao resists the (sometimes controversial) label, saying that though he has no formal training, he has read deeply about art, and infuses elements of modernism into his work. He cites Emilio di Cavalcanti, a Brazilian who mixed with European modernists but sought to create Brazilian art with Brazilian themes during much of his career; there is certainly some resemblance.

Their biggest fan may be Natalia, the non-painting poet, who notes ironically that she can’t afford her siblings’ work.

“If I had the financial conditions, I’d buy a painting from each of them,” she said.

For decades, subsets of the siblings have sold their work at the Praca da Republica, a park and plaza in the center of the city that houses a market and crafts fair on weekends. It was there they met Maria Regina Bull, a lawyer and law professor. She was doing a master degree in art, education and cultural history, and ended up focusing her thesis on the family and their struggles.

“I think that there is a lack of attention paid to these people, a lack of resources from the city government,” said Bull. “They find their work kitsch or retro. I don’t. Naive art is either loved or hated. For its admirers, their work is very good. For others, there’s nothing new in it. But I’m an admirer.”

The family has had their occasional moments in the limelight, like when Joao’s work was exhibited at Sao Paulo Museum of Art, or when one sister, Maria Auxiliadora, went from housekeeper to minor art celebrity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, eventually exhibiting in several European countries. She died of cancer at 39 in 1974, two years after starting night school courses to learn to read. In a book published about her a few years later, the then-director of Musee de l’Art Naif de l’Ile de France in Paris, called her “a natural colorist who was able to bring together the most varied nuances and the most daring colors with the most felicitous results.”

Some members of the second generation paint — one also works in an upscale gallery — but they are mostly involved in other professions, including running the beauty salon next to Joao’s studio. But if a recent visit was any indication, there is some hope from the third generation. As Joao put the finishing touches on a painting of a black woman in a lacy, multi-layered skirt, his 4-year-old granddaughter Julia, her face smudged by a poorly applied lipstick, popped up behind him. “I want to be an artist!” she announced.

“What kind?” said Joao. “A singer?”

“A painter!” she said, and scurried away.