Barney Smith's Toilet Seat Art Museum
San Antonio, Texas
We stood in a driveway in a quiet San Antonio suburb. Any moment, Barney Smith would open the corrugated metal doors on his detached garage and welcome us into his Toilet Seat Art Museum. We'd called ahead, knowing he needs time to get things cranked up. We heard footsteps from within, something unlatched, an iron pole scraped, and the doors creaked apart.
There he was: retired master plumber, artist and master of his own great roadside attraction. We'd first met Barney in 2002 (Seat count: 628), and he was a spry and lively host when we visited in May 2015 (Seat count: 1,163). On May 25, 2016 Barney turns 95 (Seat count: 1,230).
In 1921, Barney was born into a family of plumbers in Eastland, Texas (he was in town when Old Rip the Miracle Toad hopped out of the courthouse cornerstone). Kid Barney was artistically gifted. "I did more artwork growing up than Charles Schulz did. I had the funny papers plastered all over my walls at my mother's house." But he ended up in the family business. "I was born on a plumbing truck," Barney joked.
Smith's been working on his toilet seat art for over fifty years. It started with a spark of inspiration while he was picking up parts for a job.
"I went to a plumbing supply house one time, and they had about 50 toilet seats out on the dock that they were going to throw away. And I said [to the guy] 'what are you going to do with those toilet seats. I would like to have some of these toilet seats to do some art on.' I'd been going down to the River Walk and doing a little art on canvas. He said, 'well, you can't have 'em, unless you take the hinge off, and throw away half of 'em while you're here.' I threw the rim away and kept the lid."
Like a remaindered paperback book with its cover torn off, the dissection somehow guaranteed they wouldn't end up on some shady toilet seat black market.
Barney bifurcated a half-dozen seats, went home and applied his art on one, and the next day brought it back to the supply house. They let him take all the remaining seats.
Barney conducts all the tours of his collection (which became a museum in 1992, after a flurry of local TV publicity). He logs in visitors in a guest book, and keeps the archival stack of guest books close by. He uses a bamboo stick as a pointing aid.
Each seat is numbered (a system he put in place after he had 127, and realized he might start losing track). "My wife said I promised I'd quit when I hit 500....I, uh, just kept going." He laughed. "There's no stopping for me."
What, exactly, is his toilet seat art? It's part found object assemblage, part collage, part hand lettering and drawing. If Barney had a box of 40 old faucet handles, they ended up glued to a used toilet seat lid. He said his dad hunted and mounted trophy heads on plaques, and that gave Barney ideas about toilet lid mountings. His dad thought the ideas were crazy.
The back walls of the Toilet Seat Art Museum are filled with labeled shoe boxes of buttons, gewgaws and other elements for his projects. He innovates as he goes, such as using old aluminum pie pans to rub impressions of belt buckles and coins for placement on the toilets. None of his art is for sale.
Barney Smith's toilet seat topics are often very personal. If you only know Barney through what can be gleaned from an hour in his museum, you'd know almost everything about Barney. He's had eye surgery. He's patriotic. He worked at a Bible school youth camp. He deeply loves his wife, Louise, who passed away in 2013. For a long period, the pair traveled around the world to celebrate wedding anniversaries. Each milestone and exotic locale is documented with Barney's assemblage art on a toilet seat.
Some tributes are to to history or news events, for better or worse. There's a toilet seat with JFK, and one with Michael Jackson. He remembers the monstrous eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 with a seat coated in volcanic ash. An insulation fragment from NASA's 1986 space shuttle disaster is on a memorial piece. "This is from the Challenger that blew up over Cape Canaveral," he said. There's a separate toilet seat tribute to the space shuttle Columbia.
Accident prevention was on his mind when he created a seat with a loop of damaged coaxial cable and a painting of a backhoe digging a trench, warning: "Before You Dig!"
Several displays indicate, without any boasting on Barney's part, his power and influence in San Antonio and beyond -- at least, when it comes to what gets glued onto a seat. His license plates "from all 51 states" (including the U.S. Virgin Islands) had been almost complete, but he had trouble obtaining a North Dakota. Through the right connections, Governor John Hoeven of North Dakota was persuaded to send one, personally autographed. The seats devoted to individual U.S. states and Canada provinces are visitor favorites; visitors sign their names on them, room permitting.
One lid was covered with circular containers of shredded money from the Federal Reserve Bank in San Antonio. Barney assured us, if reassembled, it would amount to one million dollars. "Most people don't have a million dollars on their toilet seat."
When his dentist retired, Barney called him up at home and asked: "Did you keep anything for my toilet seats?" The dentist had. "He kept all of this in a sack," Barney said, pointing to a lid covered with dental molds, steel picks, drill burrs, tooth color samplers, and other tools of the trade. "I use some of those burrs to carve names into the toilet seats."
Barney lifted up a lid to show us a complete-with-rim seat with hundreds of hornets and a hornet nest glued to it. "One of them ground hornets stung me on the top of the head. I said 'I'm gonna put you on my toilet seat.'" And he did.
Barney weathered one phase we often see roadside dreamers struggle through: offbeat attraction publicity. Pesky writers (like us) show up and distract him from a day's work. The Montel Williams TV show would fly him annually to the studio to talk about his latest seats. Barney made a special Montel seat for each appearance. Barney also got into the habit of creating commemorative seats whenever he appeared on long running "Travel Texas with Bob Phillips." He's done seats with regalia from visiting motorcycle and car clubs. A bit of mission creep if you ask us. Then again, the seats are a document of his life, and a lot of that is now spent entertaining the curious and his fans. Anyone can stand in the museum and view video tapes of Barney's media appearances.
We visited Barney in 2015, a few weeks before his 94th birthday, as he awaited receipt of birthday cards from his three daughters. For the toilet seat. In May 2016, just before his 95th, we called him and he was busy -- so busy he'd forgotten to take his afternoon medicine. He'd just finished toilet seat No. #1,230 (the birthday cards arrived early). He asked us to spread the word about the Facebook page his grandson created for him.
Barney tallies his grandchildren and great-grandchildren on his family tree toilet seat. The guy never stops.