Welcome to the Third World

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

Harper's slightly dreamy smile intensifies only a little when visitors show up to tour Third World. Recently an Orange Show tour brought a busload of folks to visit; they might have thought the quiet Harper was indifferent to their presence, but his eyes were both a little brighter and a little dreamier than usual, and he stood in the middle of the visitors, soaking up the oohs and aahs, giving short answers to their questions: "Where did you find that motorcycle helmet?" "By the side of the road." "Where did you find those water skis?" "By the side of the road."

If you were meeting him for the first time then, you might have thought he was bored. But privately Harper says he "sure does" like visitors. The occasional dollop of outside interest helps keep him going. Marilyn Oshman, the founder of the Orange Show Foundation, which more than any other Houston group tracks local folk arts, also visited Harper recently. She praised his work as he listened quietly, his eyes elsewhere, then asked him if he felt "like an artist." A quick April rain started to fall as they talked, and the pair took the wobbly steps up into Harper's lookout tower, where Oshman repeated the question.

"I'm starting to," he answered with a sly smile. "I sure am."
Actually, there's no question that Harper is an artist. And while there may be a touch of meanness in comparing the work of artists who are not only untrained but unpaid as well, Harper's creation is simply more complex and challenging than, say, Cleveland Turner's (a.k.a. the Flower Man) wonderful Third Ward corner just a few blocks away. You look at the Flower Man's wild profusion of plants and vines and paint and say immediately, I get it. Not so with Harper.

So I ask him again what his work is all about, and he tells me again that it is for the glory of God, that for those who have eyes to see, it is a sign of God's existence.

As we stroll among his structures, I try one last time to get Harper to speak in detail about his work and ideas. He has built a string of rooms along the fence. Neighborhood kids, whom he lets enter in twos and threes, use them for spaceships. ("I'm flying to Pluto," one kid shouts as I walk by.) Beneath his watchtower he has a hidden room, just in case he feels the need to rest. He talks about building a room entirely from picture tubes. So I ask if he is building private rooms to compensate for his crowded childhood, when he had to sleep in the same bed as his brothers.

"Not really," he answers.
We stand in front of one of the taller constructions, a sculpture with an abstract base, which holds a female mannequin about eight feet off the ground. The mannequin wears a headpiece that looks like a cross between an Oriental hat and a massive lampshade. Farther above the mannequin, near its top some 15 or 20 feet up, is a small figure of King Kong. Harper has named this piece "Beauty and the Beast."

This structure has so many clever juxtapositions that I ask Harper if he is consciously trying to be funny when he puts certain pieces together.

"No, not really," he says, drawing out every syllable. "I just find these things and figure how they would look together."

I put away my notebook then, and determine to stop asking stupid questions. It is blazing hot now, so we walk through the sculptures and toward the shade offered by the trees along Third World's perimeter. On the edges are pieces that survived the fire. Harper has arrangements of television picture tubes that are now nearly hidden by the green growth of trees, and when I push aside branches to see the geometrical game he's played with the tubes, I feel like an explorer in an old movie, finding traces of a lost civilization.

"Look here," Harper says.
He nods up at a pipe he had laid on the branches between two trees back when he first started to build. Both trees have grown around the pipe, have integrated it into their bodies.

"Don't this look like a miracle?"
I pull out my notebook and decide to give God another try. I describe, as best I can, a vision of the final day given me by his brother Quincy, a final day in which "the dead bodies will rise up out the ground, and the dead sailors will come walking up out the ocean, and the righteous will fly away like doves." I wonder if Harper imagines it in a similar way.

"I don't know," he says, looking down at the ground and digging with the toe of his shoe. "Some people say that Heaven is going to be right here on Earth. Some people say that on Judgment Day, all that's going to happen is that the bad will go away, and it won't leave nothing but the good."

I look around Harper's yard and try to imagine a world filled entirely with Third Worlds.

So you think this is what heaven will look like?, I start to ask, but I stop myself. Some questions are just too stupid to answer.

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