For members of the plumbing world, there typically aren’t many attractions or art showcases tailored to their profession. At least not since Marcel Duchamp’s urinal sculpture “Fountain” became an icon in 1917. Perhaps that’s where Barney Smith’s muse came from for his own one-of-a-kind hand-decorated toilet seats.
A retired master plumber in San Antonio, Texas, Barney has been crafting and designing these unique pieces for over 50 years. With thousands of hours of crafting under his belt, he has become a household name—the only name, in fact—when it comes to décor and art of this style. In the decades that he’s spent making these pieces, he’s crafted more than 1,400 toilet seats.
Barney’s work is classified as readymade art, which means taking existing objects from real life and modifying them to function as works of art. He credits his father’s hunting mounts as the true inspiration for first putting artwork on toilet seats, but he really finds his ideas from nearly anywhere in the world.
When asked why he does what he does, Barney’s response was, “Because I’m still alive…is that a good enough reason?” His collection was only made viewable to the public in 1992, and since then it’s grown as a cultural and industry phenomenon. Averaging around 1,000 visitors a year, Barney takes each one on a private tour of the collection. With a database-like memory, he remembers everything about every single piece he ever made. From stories of the seat that has a piece of debris from the Challenger shuttle to the toilet seat that was once in Saddam Hussein’s palace, sent to him by a member of the armed forces, he definitely has a unique collection.
At 97 years old, he has finally sold his collection. When he was first considering letting go of it a year ago, he had a lot of opinions about how that should happen. Since it’s the only museum of its kind in the entire world, the biggest factor was making sure that it stayed as a collection and wasn’t broken up.
“I don’t care whether it goes to New York or Kalamazoo, Michigan,” Barney explained. “Wherever they want to take it, they’ve got to keep it together. I want somebody to keep it as a museum.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Recently, the ‘Truck Yard’ eatery acquired the massive collection for their upcoming location in The Colony, Dallas. Now, even though Barney Smith has retired, people can still travel from all over the world to admire the artwork that he put his time, dedication, and love into for more than half a century.