You read right! Check this out. Barney Smith, famed plumber, turned Texas toilet seat artist, has a flare for the “not so normal.” Pictured here is his garage/museum which to date has over 1000 hand-crafted seats and he shows no signs of slowing down, even though he is well into his 90's.
Barney is a very articulate and animated speaker who loves his work. Why does he paint and engrave toilet seats? Barney says, "I was a master plumber before I retired so I was comfortable with the medium."
Barney started to modify toilet seats about 35 years ago. It all started when he needed a place to mount a set of small deer antlers. Apparently the toilet seat lid was just about the right shape, and he stuck the antlers on the lid. And so it began.
Mr. Smith gets his inspiration for his seats from all over the world. Many of the seats have personal meaning to him, and some depict his travels around the world, birthdays and his wedding anniversaries (over 65 -- way to go Barney!).
He comments that all his seats are special and have distinct memories for him. "That is why," he says, "none are for sale. They all mean too much to me."
This is also why each seat is numbered, photographed, and cataloged. Etched into the back of each seat is a numerical code, documentation about the materials used for decoration, the work's particular inspiration, and information about who donated the seat materials .
The seats themselves are all the pressed wood variety (sawdust and glue). "They are the only ones to work with" said Smith, "the solid wood ones have an overpowering color and you can't paint and carve into the plastic ones." A local company donates all the seats. There are many dozens of "blanks" in the shop that are ready to undergo their transformation into objet's d' art.
This toilet tells the story of Barney's eye surgery, complete with medical items and photos from the hospital. He's also got one documenting his wife's gall bladder surgery but she's hidden her stones from him so they're not included. Some things are just too private, I guess.
Surprisingly, Mr. Smith isn't the only afficianado of toilet seat art. A John Kostopoulus, the late California "King of the Toilet Seat Arts" was also a toilet seat designer. Mr. Kostopolous' collection was mostly thrown away after his death.
"That won't happen here," assures Smith. "My daughter is going to take all the seats when, well, when the time comes... and she'll make sure they are well taken care of." Barney 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.
Another part of the museum which you should budget at least 15 minutes for is the theater. Smith runs several VHS tapes showing his museum being covered by the nightly news, The Today Show and Montel, among others.
It's difficult to pick a favorite specimen but I was impresses by the one containing a genuine marijuana leaf (signed on the back by the Chief of the San Antonio police allowing the display for "educational purposes") and the seat covered with various dog breeds and it's companion seat with dog tags.
Many of Mr. Smith's seats were made with donated materials that people mail him, so if you have something unique and you'd like it preserved forever upon a throne (lid), mail whatever it is to Mr. Smith along with your name and information about what you are sending him. It just might end up on a seat. The following are a few samples taken from his portion of a website on unusual museums.
For anyone living in or going to the San Antonio area, if you are short on time forget the Alamo and the Riverwalk and spend the afternoon with Barney Smith instead. If you visit, Barney invites you to bring along your old toilet seats for his artistry. "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."
(Toilet Seat Museum: 239 Abiso Ave., San Antonio - Alamo Heights, TX [Show Map] Directions: I-35 to I-410 West (North), Broadway exit, go back underneath interstate toward town, at 6021 Broadway (Jefferson State Bank) bear to the right, make right onto Argo, go 2 blocks, make left onto Abiso, 1/2 block. The address is 239 Abiso, but the garage is located around the corner on Arbustus.
Hours: Call first to give Barney time to get ready for you. Admission: Free.