Welcome to the Third World

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

Bob Harper was born the fourth of five sons to construction worker Willie Harper. It's hard to get a handle on where exactly the Harper boys grew up, as Bob makes casual references to "our house in the Fifth Ward," "when we lived in Pasadena" or "back in the Third Ward." Bob's biological mother died when he was four, and the boys were raised by a stepmother who, in the words of Bob's youngest brother, Quincy, "did everything but birth us." (She is the woman Bob and Quincy refer to as "Mother.")

Quincy Harper lives right behind the Fifth Ward house Bob moved into after the fire. (Though the Third World stayed where it was, the house that had been on the lot was destroyed.) Quincy is, in fact, his brother's landlord. Bob wasted no time in converting his new house's small yard into a mini-Third World, with an eye-catching fence design; unlike some landlords, Quincy is happy to have the yard art. Quincy himself has a large nativity scene on permanent display atop his own secluded house.

He agrees that his brother's art has a divine inspiration. "Somebody is telling him what to do," he says. "And they're telling him to do something good."

Bob will answer direct questions about his life, but for a narrative sense of Bob's story you have to turn to Quincy, at 58 a retired construction worker and an active preacher in a church he built himself (with Bob's help).

Quincy and Bob are so different that if they weren't brothers they probably wouldn't much like each other. Quincy might not care for Bob, who in general can't be bothered with getting angry. Except for his artwork, Bob seems to want to get through life without being noticed. He's not a tacky-looking man, but he doesn't care overmuch about clothes, either. Quincy, though, gets up "every morning and I put on a suit. I got 25 suits and they're all from Craig's. I don't wear no discount suits."

Once Quincy has his jacket and tie on, Bob comes over with his breakfast, usually eggs and ham. "Bob can cook," Quincy says. "He made the best hot tamales you ever tasted." After breakfast is served, Quincy holds court for the occasional visitor. The walls of his living room are lined with old photos of their father and the two older brothers who died in construction accidents.

As a child, Bob was a builder. "He'd look at pictures in old books and try to copy how things were," says Quincy. "He'd build playhouses and decorate our fence, just like he did out here. Our mother would clear the fence off, and he'd have it back on the next day. He needs to keep his mind occupied."

According to Quincy, "Bob worked hard in construction," and he's still a hard worker. After his house burned down, Bob borrowed Quincy's wheelbarrow and shovel. "Bob went and cleared up everything and stacked it in the street" in just a few days.

There was never any doubt in Quincy's mind that Bob would rebuild his Third World. "He started right away. He's got to keep busy." Quincy doesn't understand how Bob knows what he knows about building, except as an inspiration from God. "He didn't copy it off anybody. He got it off his own mind." But Quincy does know where Bob got his work ethic.

The Harper boys were brought up to work by their father, Willie. By age 12 or so the boys had joined their father in construction work. They were all big and strong; during fistfights Bob "would swing [at Quincy] so hard his fist would go through the sheetrock."

But if their father emphasized hard work and church -- not school; Bob only made it to the fifth grade -- he still had enough spark in him to be pleased with Bob's artistic side. "He said, 'That boy's going to be something someday,' " says Quincy.

Bob worked as a bricklayer and a plasterer, and he won a reputation as a hard worker. "Bob can work," says Quincy. "Yes, Lord Jesus. They used to say, 'If you need to tear scaffolding down, get Bob Harper. It seemed like the more he worked, the harder he could work.' "

Quincy pauses at the notion of hard work and looks up to a photo of Willie Jr., his oldest brother. Junior died in a construction accident -- "a 20,000-pound machine fell on him" -- but not before becoming a local legend as a construction worker. As Quincy tells it, Junior was Houston's version of John Henry.

"He was a working man. Yes, Lord. He was the hardest-working man who ever been through this place. He was the hardest-working man in Houston, Texas. I believe he was the hardest-working man in America. It seemed like he liked to work.

"He was broken up everywhere but on the bottom of his foot" from job accidents, but he kept working. "He could build more scaffolding with one arm than anybody else with two. He could push a wheelbarrow over a scaffolding board you couldn't get me to walk on. That was a scaffold-building man, yes Lord. The company went out of business when he died, they sure did. That man was missed."

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