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.
Edward, Harper's other guest this morning, stood for a moment, his brow furrowed as he simultaneously studied Third World and lit a cigarette.
"I ain't seen you in a while," Harper said as Edward stepped in front of him.
"I just got out of the hospital," Edward answered. Then he took another drag on his cigarette. "Heart attack. You got a couple of dollars, man? I'm hungry."
Harper reached into his pocket and drew out two bills. Harper doesn't have much money, and he doesn't like handing it out, but he wanted Edward to move on and leave him in peace.
"Thanks," Edward said. "I ain't ate nothing all day." Then, with a sweeping gesture toward Third World, "I see you built it up again."
Not wanting to talk, Harper nodded in agreement, and Edward shuffled on toward Scott Street.
"I knew Bob would build again," Joseph boasted from inside Third World.
Yes, build again. This is Harper's second Third World. The first, over a decade in the making, was destroyed one Sunday evening in January 1992. While the devout Harper was attending church at the nearby Christian Home Baptist Church, a gas heater exploded in the small house he and his mother then shared on the Third World lot. Speaking as laconically as ever, Harper remembers running from the church when told "your house is on fire."
He found the entire neighborhood in the streets, screaming "she's in there" at the firefighters. The leaping flames gave what remained of his Third World structures -- the firefighters had destroyed some as they worked their way toward the fire -- an eerie, backlit glow.
Inside the house, fireman Jackie Hanson was trying to save Mrs. Harper from what he remembers as "the worst fire of my life." Hanson found her unconscious on her bed, "with third-degree burns over 70 percent of her body." Hanson weighs 145, she weighed nearly 280, and as he tried to carry her out on his back, "the fire was ripping. The roof was burning, and the floor was falling in." Spiked with adrenaline, he managed to leap out a window with her. But Mrs. Harper didn't survive. She succumbed to her burns, dying two days later.
That first Third World apparently died with her. Harper had started his original vision with the house itself. Now, all of that was gone. There was some talk at the time that Harper's obsession with building had cost his mother her life, that his art had physically come between the firefighters and the fire. But Captain Clifford Reed, who supervised the fight, rejects that notion. The clutter "slowed us down," he agrees, "but Mrs. Harper couldn't have been saved."
The local art community was stunned at both Harper's personal tragedy and the destruction of an absolutely inimitable art environment. And a blighted, officially neglected neighborhood had lost one of its emblems of local genius.
What do you do when your labor of 12 years lies in ruins? When you're nearly 60 and your injured back (Harper receives disability for an accident he suffered at a grocery store job) no longer allows you to lift the heavy objects -- the stuff of your art -- that you find alongside the road? For Harper, the answer was as simple as the question. You rebuild.
Work such as Harper's (if a category "such as Harper's" actually exists) inevitably raises the simple question: why? It's a lot of work, done largely in obscurity; you're likely to be considered crazy for doing it; and whatever reward you do receive won't buy you anything -- not a less deadly heating system, not a tank of gas for your old truck. In a Latin or purely African culture, this question might not carry such weight, but in the pragmatic U.S.A., that why can pierce like a scream.
Maybe it's a sign of infantilism to keep asking why. It's surely a mark of pragmatism to try to glean some useful understanding from Bob Harper's desire.
But when he says, "I build for the Lord. Everybody can look at what I build and know that there is a God up above, because I get my ideas from the blue sky," it makes sense, but it doesn't satisfy. Harper is a deeply, if quietly, religious man, a sort of Third Ward, Third World saint. Fine.
But if Harper has a traditionally religious message, then why does his work have so few overt markers of God? There's a cross in the fence at the entrance, and not much else.
I kept looking for signs of easy comfort. One neighbor told me, "His mother is still alive there." That sounded helpful, but when I asked Harper if this notion had occurred to him, he merely shrugged and answered, "Maybe so."
Of his mother's death he says, "It hurt real bad. It sure enough did." But his voice doesn't betray any lingering pain. Maybe he's speaking from that very private place inside him that tells him what and how to build. Maybe he shows his grief in a different way. But anything I say about Harper will have to be prefaced with that "maybe." He's in the unpaid business of creating, not solving, mystery.
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."
The fallen machine crushed Willie Jr. into the ground. His last words were, "Get this thing off me."
When Bob remembers his oldest brother, he echoes Quincy's line that "he liked to work," but he does so without any particular emphasis. Out of the rich world that Bob Harper carries inside himself, few words emerge.
When Bob remembers the dead in his life, his voice is flat, unemotive. But Quincy brings them back to life. With his breakfast plate now pushed away, Quincy leans toward me. "You got me stirred up," he says, caught in the grip of memory.
Quincy's wife of many years died of bone cancer only this February, and after announcing that he'll marry again soon -- "man is not meant to be alone" -- he remembers her passing. "One night she told me, 'Quincy, this is the last night. We have to talk now or we won't talk at all.' I didn't want to hear that, but she told me, 'Where I'm going the streets are paved with gold. I don't need to take no gold with me. Take the gold off my teeth.' "
Quincy leans forward even closer; he is almost out of his chair. He opens his mouth and points to the golden caps, engraved with stars and other designs, across his teeth. "This is her gold," he says, then slumps back into his chair.
Quincy Harper follows me out the door as I stumble toward my car, feeling lightheaded in the face of his extravaganza of talk. When he grins, I see the gold on his teeth, and then I turn toward the house of his oh-so-quiet brother. Modest towers poke up above the back wall of Bob's house, and jazz issues softly from the radio he keeps playing at all times in front of his house, and I wish that for 30 minutes Bob could talk like Quincy, and tell me everything.
That never happened, but Bob became almost talkative on his front porch one morning when he remembered running off to join the "circus."
Bob was 17 when the Bob Hammond Show, a traveling carnival (which Bob habitually refers to as a "circus"), hired him to "help them tear down" when they were getting ready to leave Houston. Impressed by Bob's work, the carnival's managers asked him to stay on, and they took off "traveling all around the country. We stayed out all year." Bob helped assemble and tear down the rides, and he operated some as well. The bumper cars were his favorite, and he would like to install such an attraction, or a ferris wheel, in Third World.
When Bob would return for the winter, he worked construction, though he never took to building "what other people wanted me to build. I wanted to build the way I wanted to."
He combined the carnival and construction for almost 15 years, then became the Hot Tamale Man. A friend of his was making and selling tamales, and "he tried to hide the recipe from me. But I'd go through the garbage and find what seasonings he used." From such research he constructed his own recipe; now he figures that he sold "three or four hundred dozen hot tamales" out of his car on a good weekend. In the mid-'80s, however, city health officials shut his tamale operation down.
Bob went to work for a small grocery, supporting himself and his mother (with his brothers' help). But the best part of his imagination went into developing Third World, which he had begun around 1980.
He had been thinking about building something ever since his days with the carnival, and after moving into the house on Sampson and carrying out a massive cleanup of the yard, he began.
First he built inside the house itself. He put panes of glass together, with posts in between, and stuck pictures of various leaders, religious and political, on the glass. He set up two such walls of glass that ran into the house from the door, making a grand entrance. He then began covering the walls with every imaginable artifact, mostly items he saw on the side of the street while driving around in his old pickup. After the house had been almost uncomfortably filled, he began building in the yard, setting up his towers and little rooms, with carefully designed walkways connecting the various corners of Third World. He covered the original rickety fence with various signs and, above all, with electric fan blades. Because of the fans, he became widely known as the Fan Man.
At first, neighbors weren't sure what to make of the Fan Man. He had some trouble with break-ins, and there was some talk that he was up to no good. When his house burned and his mother died, one rumor had it that Harper had planned the fire. This bit of gossip is now scornfully dismissed by Bob's neighbors, most of whom say they have never gotten to know him very closely, but that they appreciate his creation. "At least he's building something up," says a young man who lives across the street. "We got too many houses that are coming down."
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.
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"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.