Welcome to the Third World

Bob Harper created a universe from trash, using only his hands, his heart, and a load of imagination

On a piercingly beautiful April day, a day on which even the inner-city sky kept its rich shade of blue all the way down to the horizon, two men walked along Sampson Street, just off Scott in the Third Ward. Though they came from opposite directions, both were headed for the Third World.

That doesn't mean they were walking to Mexico, and it's not intended as a statement on the condition of that neglected neighborhood. No, they were bound for Bob Harper's Third World, an art environment that Harper has built using only his instincts for form and construction and the debris of a disposable culture. Abandoned television sets, hardhats, water skis, benches, mannequins, beer bottles, Oscar de la Renta signs: Harper has assembled these and many other items into sculptures that exist at varying levels of abstraction.

One of the two men approaching Harper's world was Edward. Just a couple of drinks shy of a stagger, he turned off of Napoleon after trudging past the old Jones Barber Shop, which has been falling in on itself for years now, and past two abandoned houses that looked unlikely to survive the next strong wind. Before him, the shock of Third World's colors -- especially its dominant blues -- and the row of fans that looked like children's pinwheels on top of Third World's sturdy front wall cut through both the neighborhood's blur of decrepitude and Edward's alcohol haze, drawing the man toward Harper.

Harper, a fit and youthful-looking 60-year-old, sat at the entrance to his Third World, enjoying the beautiful weather as Edward ambled toward him. Harper looked to where his second visitor, Joseph, pushed a shopping cart toward him from the south. Joseph wheeled his burden past the abandoned El Orbit Motel, then glanced up to see Third World's southernmost image: a square of plywood decorated with a picture of the Earth drawn as if it were the face of an unhappy baby. The drawing is made as if from the perspective of space. This panel, like everything else in Third World, was found by the side of the road, but both image and perspective are eerily appropriate for Harper's otherworldly carnival.

A radio was embedded in the fence just below a "Third World" sign that Harper carted away from an abandoned neighborhood restaurant; the restaurant's name soon became attached figuratively, as well as literally, to Harper's creation. Rap music now blared from the inset radio. Harper doesn't much like rap; he prefers gospel music. But he figures that his neighbors mostly listen to hip-hop, and he plays the radio for them. This gesture is emblematic of Harper; he's both a generous man and a private man. He plays music he doesn't like for the enjoyment of others, but he turns it up loud enough that they don't have to come too close to hear it.

Though he carried a spectacularly awkward-looking load, Joseph reached Harper first. On top of his shopping cart were two sections of pipe, both at least 30 feet long. Joseph had stuck one end of each pipe under the cart's handle, so a good 25 feet of pipe stuck straight out in front of him, like a pair of mutant antennae.

Joseph pulled his cart to a stop in front of the bemused-looking Harper and began talking excitedly about how he'd found these pipes for Harper.

"These are for you," Joseph said. "I been carrying them all day."
Harper leaned forward in his metal chair as Salt N Pepa thundered behind him. He has an athlete's physical grace, and a simple motion of his arm, a lifting of his long, leathery fingers to his face, showed the bulge of a bicep that a much younger man might envy.

He eyed the pipes with his habitual reserve, then said, "Take them on in. I'll find some use for them."

"Bob is good people," Joseph said as he carried the first pipe through the entrance to Third World. As he stepped into Harper's creation, he stepped out of the physical chaos of the Third Ward, a place where many empty yards are filled with trash.

To Joseph's right, as he entered, stood Harper's lookout tower -- a room maybe ten feet off the ground, inside which he can keep dry when it rains, and from which he can watch over the neighborhood. Joseph carried his length of pipe across the squares Harper had fashioned by planting television picture-tube frames in the ground, then covering them with orange shag carpet. He eased toward the sculpture Harper calls "The Eye of Magnificence," a 15-foot-tall assemblage of television screens, crates and skis that forms a playful, cartoony face. Joseph laid the pipe down in an open space in front of another, unnamed assemblage. Much taller than the "Eye," this piece, framed just then by the sky's deep blue, gives the impression of being a combination time machine and chariot.

Harper sat impassively as Joseph scuttled in and out of his environment. He usually pays Joseph a few dollars when he brings in a piece of scrap. Joseph also gets to refer to himself as "Bob's assistant" in this project, which has attracted the attention -- and usually the approval -- of the neighborhood ever since Harper began building in the early '80s. Neighbors now leave ruined television sets and other items they think Harper can build with outside Third World's fence.

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