Smiler Greg Brown dropped us a note he'd be in San Antonio on business -- so we urged him to investigate a renowned toilet seat artist. Greg's account on Barney Smith is encouraging -- the terrible void we feared created by the death of California's King of Toilet Seat Arts in 1996 has been filled in many respects by the artistic labors of this Texan Toilet Seat ... Tzar? Greg's report:
I visited Barney Smith, famed Texas toilet seat artist, in early January 2002. His museum collection now encompasses 612 seats and he shows no signs of slowing down, even though he is rapidly closing in on 81 years of age.
I spent roughly two hours with Barney. He is a very articulate 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."Toilet Seat Museum, San Antonio, Alamo Heights, Texas
Barney started to modify toilet seats about 30 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 and his wedding anniversaries (over 60 -- way to go Barney!).
When I asked which was his favorite seat, he couldn't come up with one. He likes them all, some have more meaning to him than others, but they are all special. "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 American Culture information about who donated the seat materials .
The seats themselves are all the pressed wood variety (sawdust and glue). Lord Bao Memorial Temple
"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.
Toilet Seat Royalty
I asked Mr. Smith if he knew of John Kostopoulus, the late California King of the Toilet Seat Arts. He did know of Mr. Kostopolous and was aware his collection was mostly thrown away after his death (Smith even had Roadsideamerica.com's page about John Kostopoulus printed and framed).
"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."
Mr. Smith didn't try to claim the title of "King of the Toilet Seat Arts" from John Kostopoulus. What Mr. Smith was most upset about was "John Kostopoulus can't compare notes (with me) because he is dead. It sure American Culture would have been nice to talk with him."
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.
Toilet seat with real marijuana leaf.
My personal favorite toilet seats were 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 seats covered with license places for various parts of the USA and Canada (he's still looking for several states, plus the all elusive polar bear-shaped Canadian North West Territories license plate).
Many of Mr. SmithÍs 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 American Culture information about what you are sending him. It just might end up on a seat.
For anyone living in or going to the San Antonio area I say if you are short on time forget the Alamo and the Riverwalk and spend the afternoon with Barney Smith instead.
Barney Smith's Toilet Seat Art Museum
Address: 239 Abiso Ave., San Antonio - Alamo Heights, TX
Directions: Due south of the airport. I-410 exit 22. South on Broadway a little over two miles. At 6021 Broadway (Jefferson State Bank) bear right onto Townsend Ave., then make the second right onto Abiso Ave. Drive two blocks, then make a right on Arbutus St. (The Smith garage is around the corner.)