Barney Smith collected toilet seats—a lot of them. And the collection he kept in a San Antonio garage was unique; for one thing, it was a collection of over 1,400. Each and every one of those toilet seats had been creatively hand-decorated, painted or otherwise embellished by Barney himself, transformed into head-turning works of art.
Alas, his backyard garage-turned-museum, which hosted frequent visitors and attracted attention from around the globe, is no longer with us. Neither is Barney. But the collection—and his legacy—live on.
In 2019, the collection moved to the regional Truck Yard chain’s location in The Colony, Texas, where it’s now on display. It seems that Barney had been looking for a buyer for a while; the folks at Truck Yard Beer Garden eventually made the offer and shared with him their plans for presentation. “He was happy with that, so he accepted,” Kristopher Livermore says. Kristopher oversees a Facebook page dedicated to preserving his grandfather’s legacy—Kristopher’s the son of Barney’s youngest daughter, Julia.
While Barney was there at the Beer Garden to cut the celebratory ribbon himself on that momentous day, he passed just weeks later at the age of 98.
In Barney’s own words, from the Truck Yard website:
“I appreciate them wanting…to put my work on display, and to show the world what I did for 97 years of my life. I’d like to be remembered for how a person could save a lot of stuff that is being destroyed [and] for showing them it needs to be saved – maybe not on a toilet seat, but they can save what has come their way instead of destroying it. Showing that it’s worth something.”
“We’re proud to be the home of Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum,” Amanda Boso, Truck Yard’s Ms. Chief of Staff says. “We were lucky enough to spend time with Barney before he passed,” she adds. “It’s very special to us help his legacy continue. At Truck Yard, we like to keep things unique and fun, so what’s more unique and fun than a room full of toilet seats decorated with wacky and sentimental items from Barney’s life?”
Amanda offers a perspective on the importance of display and points out that all pieces have been utilized. “All the toilet seats are hung on the walls and parts of the ceiling. It’s wall-to-wall toilet seats,” she says. But that’s not all: they also enlisted a muralist to paint a parody of the Creation of Adam on the room’s ceiling—with painted hands passing a roll of toilet paper.
“We tried to make the experience as much like a real museum as possible. Customers … are wowed by Barney’s life’s work and appreciate the whimsy it brings to their visit.”
But how did it all get started? Despite his artistic leanings, many of the men in Barney’s family were plumbers. So, it made sense for him to pick up the tools of that trade and continue the family business.
But his creative nature found a way out, and in remarkable ways. Each individual toilet seat in Barney’s collection uses both planned and found objects to dazzle the eye. Many of his pieces depict celebrities, like Michael Jackson and JFK, and some have topical subjects taken right from the headlines—like one referencing the 1986 space shuttle disaster, or another work incorporating pieces of the Berlin Wall.
Much like plumbing, the museum in Barney’s garage became a family business, as well—sort of. “I helped out over the years,” Kristopher recalls. “If grandpa needed something printed, information, or emails sent out.”
“At a young age, I thought it was pretty cool,” Kristopher continues. “I remember every time we visited my grandparents, he’d invite us to look at all the new pieces he had put together.”
With thousands of unique works to observe, Kristopher does share a few that have stood out to him over the years. “The first (is one made with a) D.A.R.E. shirt, from my childhood,” he shares. The second one he mentions happened to also be his grandfather’s favorite, a piece quoting Rudyard Kipling’s poem “When Earth’s Last Picture Is Painted.”
“He learned (that poem) at a young age,” Kristopher says, “and still knew the words at the age of 98. He would try to quote it at least once for visiting guests.”
When Earth’s last picture is painted and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and faith, we shall need it – lie down for an aeon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen Shall put us to work anew.
And those that were good shall be happy: they shall sit in a golden chair;
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comet’s hair.
They shall find real saints to draw from – Magdalene, Peter, and Paul;
They shall work for an age at a sitting and never be tired at all!
And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame;
And no one will work for the money, and no one will work for the fame,
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are!
An apt work to share, as we celebrate the work and legacy of Barney Smith. May his separate star shine eternal.
Now out of print, the book King of the Commode: Barney Smith and His Toilet Seat Art Museum, was published by Cattywampus Press in 2017. Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum is open daily from 11 am-2am, at 5959 Grove Lane, The Colony, Texas.
By Bill Furbee, contributor for Ripleys.com