Barney Smith's Toilet Seat Art Museum
San Antonio, Texas
Barney Smith is a retired master plumber. So was his dad, who in his spare time liked to mount trophy heads on plaques. Barney thought about that, and reasoned that a toilet seat lid is shaped like a plaque, and a used one is free. Why not use that? Barney suggested the idea to his dad, who thought he was crazy.
But Barney liked the idea, and eventually began making art on toilet seat lids in his garage -- the same garage that is now the Toilet Seat Art Museum. "It became a Museum when they put me on the local TV stations," he said. "August of 1992. I said, 'Well, the cat's out of the bag now.' I got me a guest book and swung open the doors."
Barney is well into his nineties -- he was born May 25, 1921 -- and is still a toilet seat art-making machine. "I'm working day and night on toilet seats," he said, with his lid total up to 1,069 when we spoke with him (yes, we know this number keeps climbing!). Barney often labors until the early hours of the morning. "I can't even eat when I'm hungry or sleep when I'm sleepy when I'm working on toilet seats."
Before you fret that poor Barney is a slave on some folk-art-on-commission assembly line, be aware that he really, really loves making toilet seat art. And none of his artwork has ever been for sale. He keeps them all; they're a kind of toilet seat lid scrapbook of his life. "There's 1,069 stories hanging up there in that garage," said Barney, and he can tell you every one of them.
A Pilgrimage to Barney's Garage
A visit to the Toilet Seat Art Museum first requires a call to Barney. "It takes me at least fifteen minutes to quit doing what I'm doing and get my shoes on," he said. Then he slowly walks to the end of his driveway and places an orange traffic cone as a signal that the museum is open. "I appreciate people a'callin' ahead of time," he said. "I hate for people to be disappointed."
Once inside the garage, Barney likes to show visitors a video of his media highlights, then lead them through the lids -- an enthusiastic, friendly tour guide. There are toilet seats for JFK, and the Corn Palace, and Barney's appearance on Montel Williams.
One lid is coated with volcanic ash from Mount St. Helens, another frames a marijuana leaf (the lid is signed by San Antonio's police chief), a third is mounted with handles from an old coffin that Barney dug up in his back yard.
The Space Shuttle Challenger memorial seat incorporates a hunk of insulation that washed ashore after it blew up (Barney asked NASA to authenticate it, but they haven't yet). His Michael Jackson tribute seat was created in an artistic flurry on the day the pop performer died.
In addition to the lids hanging from the walls and rafters, Barney's museum includes a wall of shelves with boxes of buttons, knobs, and other decorative items, carefully separated and labeled, ready to be glued and arranged into more art.
"My wife once asked, 'Have you lost your marbles?' said Barney. "And I said, 'No, I've got 'em on a toilet seat!'"
Visitors are welcome to bring their own toilet seat lids -- Barney is always running low -- "and if I use it, I will give them credit," said Barney. "I will engrave their name on the back, 'This is the donor of this toilet seat.' It'll be something that they can be proud of."
"Tell the people to do a search on their machine and pull me up on the Roadside America!" Barney suddenly announced, using us as his megaphone. "Come on down to San Antonio!"
Toilets Immortal: A Cautionary Tale
Barney, aware of his age, is also aware that a previous (and totally unrelated) toilet seat art king, John Kostopoulos, had his life's work thrown away when he died.
"That won't happen here," Barney said.
He has plans for one of his daughters to take over the collection when he passes on, and told us that Bemis Co., the world's largest manufacturer of toilet seats, wants to move the museum to its headquarters in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin -- but not as long as Barney is alive.
"Any time that the Lord says it's enough down here, I'll leave this Toilet Seat Museum," Barney said. "Then I'll say, 'Bemis, send down a big truck; I'm getting ready to leave this old world.'" But when you talk with Barney, you don't get the sense that he'll be taking that trip any time soon.
"I've got a dozen more toilet seats right now waiting for me to put a number on them," he said, focused on the work at hand. "So I'm gonna keep on a'goin'."