Over his lifetime, Barney Smith designed, decorated and collected roughly 1,400 toilet seat lids. The master plumber-turned-artist died Tuesday at the age of 98.
From art and knickknacks to spoons, coins and stamps, human beings have amused themselves by accumulating large quantities of similar items for thousands of years. Janet Jackson likes pig figurines, Tom Hanks owns more than 50 typewriters, and ancient Egyptians gathered hundreds of thousands of books and scrolls into the Library of Alexandria. Sometimes collecting is for sentimental purposes: photos and letters. Other times it's more practical: vintage tools or guitars.
For Smith it was somewhere in between. Toilet seat lids became blank canvases on which to display the odds and ends he amassed throughout his life. He made the first installation after refusing to pay a taxidermist to mount the antlers of a buck he shot. Instead, Smith affixed them to a toilet seat lid himself, said Amanda Boso.
Boso and her husband own the local Truck Yard beer gardens. Earlier this year, the couple purchased Smith's collection to display on the walls of their private dining room and event space in their location in The Colony.
It all began late one night last year when Jason Boso was browsing the internet and came across the announcement that Smith was selling his collection, Boso said.
“I woke up the next morning to an email that said 'toilet seat museum,'” she recalled. The Bosos traveled to San Antonio to meet Smith and learn about his work. Jason Boso and Smith were both creative oddballs and clicked immediately, Boso said.
“It just kind of goes with our brand, our backyard feel,” said Nate Wanner, assistant manager of the Truck Yard's location in The Colony.
Before the sale, Smith displayed the seats in a shed in his yard in San Antonio and ran an appointment-only museum.
He adorned seats with pencils, plastic snakes, license plates, Star Wars memorabilia, old CB radios, shells, bear claws from the animal he shot after it threatened the summer camp where he was a pastor and an abundance of other minutiae he collected.
Wanner's favorite is the million dollar toilet seat. “I usually don't talk about it because I like people to come in here and see it,” he said.
From the name, people usually expect an elaborately-painted gold seat, he said. Instead, they find a literal million dollars in bills that were taken out of circulation by the Federal Reserve in San Antonio. Smith corralled the shreddings into transparent plastic containers and glued them on the seat.
Boso is partial to the seats Smith made every year for his wife on their anniversary. For their 57th year together, he designed a family tree to look like a tree they carved their initials into and sketched out the names of their children and grandchildren, she said.
Over the years fans sent Smith oddities. Surfers and geocachers contributed souvenirs. After Saddam Hussein was removed from power in Iraq, Navy Commander Ben A. Krause brought back Hussein's ceramic toilet lid from the former dictator's bunker and sent it to Smith to add to his collection.
When Boso arrived to transport the seats to the Truck Yard, Smith told her he had thrown in a few that were not quite done.
“He was making toilet seats all the way up until the end,” she said.
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When the display opened in May, the Bosos threw a party and invited Smith. In pictures from the day, he is beaming, clearly completely thrilled to see his life's work in its new home. After the party, he began to decline, Boso said.
“It's like he had that fulfillment ... his life's work is safe,” she said.
Commode art is by no means new. After all, Marcel Duchamp upset the art world with his 1917 installation “Fountain,” a urinal inscribed “R. Mutt 1917” and displayed at a rotation from its traditional orientation. But Smith definitely has left his mark on the Texas art community.