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King of Thrones

94-year-old former plumber’s Toilet Seat Art Museum is flush with creativity

Toilet seats keep Barney Smith awake at night. His daughter thinks they keep him going.

Smith, 94, is San Antonio’s king of thrones. The owner, curator and namesake of the Barney Smith Toilet Seat Art Museum has spent more than half a century building an empire in the garage behind his home. But as he gets older, he also has begun to contemplate the end of his reign.

So many toilet seats, so little time.

“I don’t know when I’m going to stop. I’ve got so much more to do,” Smith said one afternoon this spring. “Last night I was up till 3 o’clock in the morning, working on a toilet seat.”

Like most days, Smith was expecting visitors, so he disappeared through a side door, then slowly pushed open the wide, swinging front garage doors, revealing a treasure that has drawn people from all 50 states and 74 countries.

The lids of toilet seats line the inside of the doors. More seats hang from the ceiling, and they cover nearly every square inch of wall space—more than 1,100 in all, each painted, engraved, etched or otherwise decorated in a different theme of Smith’s creation.

Smith grinned. “Welcome to my toilet seat art museum,” he said.

To the retired plumber, a toilet seat lid is a blank, and cheap, canvas. The creative possibilities dawned on Smith more than 50 years ago, following a successful hunting trip in the Hill Country.

“I needed a piece of wood to mount my deer horns on,” Smith recalled. “I said, ‘I’m going to put my little horns on a toilet seat,’ and that’s how it got started.”

Smith is a lifelong artist. He taught himself to paint while he was growing up in Eastland, between Abilene and Fort Worth, and as an adult he sold oil-on-canvas works at a “starving artists” market on the San Antonio River Walk. But mounting deer antlers to a toilet seat scratched a creative itch that more traditional media had not.

“I liked it so well, until I said, ‘I’m going to put everything I have on a toilet seat,’ ” Smith said.

Before long, arrowheads, seashells, tobacco pipes, bear claws, turkey beards, plumbing supplies, old dental tools, casket handles and the silverware he recovered from his customers’ kitchen sink traps, had all found their way onto seats. A more recent work displays the flusher that Saddam Hussein used when relieving himself in his Baghdad palace. Visitors can lift the lid of yet another seat and discover a practically buzzing hive of preserved hornets.

“One of them stung me on my head, and I said, ‘I’m going to put you on my toilet seat,’ ” Smith recalled. “I stood there beating them as they came out of their hole in the ground.”

Smith had been crafting toilet seat art for three decades when he opened his free museum to the public in 1992. As his fame grew, he began appearing on national talk shows, and each time he returned home, he decorated a toilet seat to commemorate the occasion. A seat for Barbara Walters hangs next to the one for Montel Williams.

While Smith uses toilet seats as a way to record his life events, interests and travels, the connections to his admirers and curiosity-seekers seem to matter just as much. On a slow afternoon, he might greet a trickle of guests; the next day could bring a bus loaded with tourists from Japan or South Dakota. All he asks is that visitors call ahead of time so he can open up.

“It started out as a hobby that makes him happy, and it’s still a hobby to him,” said Smith’s daughter, Patricia Smith, noting how active and passionate her father has remained well into his 90s. “It’s mostly thanks to the people who come. These are the people who have kept him alive.”

Smith and his wife, Velma Louise, were married for 74 years. When she died in January, he decorated a toilet seat to honor the hospice provider who helped him care for her.

Smith said he has been giving some thought to his own mortality and is well aware of the events that followed the death of California artist John A. Kostopoulos, the “King of Toilet Seats,” in 1996.

“When he died, they put a Dumpster in his yard and threw all his toilet seats in the city dump,” Smith said, adding that almost all of Kostopoulos’ 400 seats and lids were lost. “After I’m gone, I don’t have a say-so, but it would hurt to know they’re going to be destroyed. I would hate to see that.”

Smith’s daughter has promised not to let a similar fate befall her father’s work, although she is still puzzling over a solution that will preserve his oeuvre. A plan to transfer the collection to the corporate headquarters of the Bemis Manufacturing Company, a Wisconsin-based toilet seat manufacturer, did not pan out.

“We’re trying to get some ideas, but I just don’t know what I’ll do with all of it when he’s gone,” Patricia said. “It’s really going to be some kind of tribute when he passes.”

Questions about the future of his collection weigh on him at times, but Smith is anything but morose. Museum tours and chats with visitors re-invigorate him every day, and toilet seat art still rouses his creative impulses. With so many ideas and projects in the pipeline, Smith said he’s nowhere near ready to lower the lid on his life’s work.

“I’ve got a lot of ideas,” he said. “I’ve got to keep a-going.”

Wes Ferguson is the author of ‘Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine’ (Texas A&M University Press, April 2014).