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Barney Smith, a master plumber who created works of art out of toilet seats and collected them in his own Toilet Seat Art Museum, died Tuesday night at age 98, his family announced in a Facebook post.
Born May 25, 1921, Smith spent most of his life creating unique pieces of art out of toilet seats, a collection he assembled in a garage-turned-museum behind his house in Alamo Heights, where he lived with his wife, Velma Louise, who died in 2014.
He started his artistic interest when he was a 26-year-old plumber in Eastland, near Dallas. His father made wooden plaques to mount hunting trophies, and Smith thought he could put an old toilet seat cover to similar use. As his passion for creating art of out toilet seats grew, he opened the
Visitors from around the country, some from other countries, and local regulars would come and tour the vast curation, which eventually numbered about 1,400 seats. In 2017, he sold his collection to bar owner Jason Boso, who relocated it to the Truck Yard, an outdoor beer garden in the Dallas suburb of The Colony, Texas.
“Barney was a true Texas treasure,” said Daedalus Hoffman, author of King of the Commode, a 2018 book about Smith and his work. “He was a great community member. The community space he created with the Toilet Seat Art Museum was one extension of his desire to create community and fellowship.”
As hundreds of Facebook comments attested, what made the visit to Smith’s museum worthwhile was Smith himself. As he guided visitors through the shed and explained the context of each piece, many visitors grew fond of his enthusiastic demeanor and charming personality. Smith meticulously kept a logbook all guests were asked to sign on their way out.
Throughout the years, those who came to his museum, artists in San Antonio, and residents of his neighborhood came to appreciate his work as part of the culture of Alamo Heights.
Some of the museum’s pieces were decorated with personal mementoes and dedicated to moments of Smith’s life, like his wedding or his grandchildren. Other seats included a piece of the fence from Auschwitz, a piece of Saddam Hussein’s toilet, $1 million in shredded money from the Federal Reserve, and many other strange objects for visitors to discover.
Smith often ended a museum tour with his favorite piece: a seat engraved with Rudyard Kipling’s poem, When Earth’s Last Picture Is Painted. Smith memorized the poem when he was in fifth grade, and it stuck with him ever since. Those who visited his gallery would leave with these parting words as Smith read the poem from the seat:
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
Along with keeping up the museum, Smith was active in his neighborhood and at the Alamo Heights United Methodist Church, where he taught ceramics classes. He also was a volunteer fireman in Alamo Heights. He was such a model citizen that Alamo Heights Mayor Louis Cooper officially declared May 25, 2016 – Smith’s 95th birthday – “Barney Smith Day.”
“He always had a smile on his face,” Rev. Donna Strieb said. “If he was outside working in his museum, he just loved having people come in and sharing with them about all [the art work] he had done. He was just a very joyous person. That really blessed [our community] greatly in the church community and in Alamo Heights.”
Smith is survived by three daughters, seven grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren.