Toilet-Museum

ALAMO HEIGHTS — Last June, when 96-year-old folk artist Barney Smith announced he was selling his Toilet Seat Art Museum’s collection, the world took notice.

Dozens of news outlets covered the story. A book featuring 400 of Smith’s toilet seat plaques is planned for next spring. Clorox launched an online selection of 42 favorites, including “Spoon Handle Turkey,” with dozens of utensils affixed to a wooden commode in place of feathers.

While several bids have come in, friends and family said none are substantial enough, nor have they fulfilled Smith’s wish to keep his collection together and nearby.

“We have had several offers, but daddy really wants somebody local,” said Julia Murders, Smith’s 69-year-old daughter. “We don’t want it to leave the state of Texas, but (so far) all of his offers are from China, Germany and other countries.”

Despite the museum’s quirky, off-beat appeal, many said the retired master plumber’s folk art should be taken seriously.

“It’s a fine collection of Americana and even history throughout the world,” said longtime neighbor Erica Becvar. “There are cars all over the place, and they all have the same reaction — just the delight and interest that comes across (visitors’) faces.”

Mayor Bobby Rosenthal called it “one of the most unique collections in the country.”

He added, “ It truly is a classic and I give (Smith)  a lot of credit for creating them, restoring them, and maintaining them, and showing them to the public because there are not many collections like that.”

Indeed, since the free-of-charge museum opened in 1992, after a fellow artist alerted reporters to Smith’s collection, about 25,000 people from the U.S. and 81 countries have flocked to the tin-roofed garage behind Smith’s home at 239 Abiso Ave.

Visits are by appointment only; for more, call 210-824-7791.

“I know it’s a big draw. If you look on just a standard Google Map… (on) the map of Alamo Heights, the toilet museum shows up the way the McNay (Art Museum) does.” — Mark Harlien

Carye Bye, an artist volunteering as Smith’s assistant for more than a year, and who ran her own museum of bathtub art in Portland, Oregon, for 15 years, thinks Smith’s contribution is significant.

“He’s actually part of the economy,” she said. “People come out to the museum, go get dinner. I think (city leaders) should really step up their game, in my opinion, and be like, ‘We want to keep this. This is important to our community.’”

The subject hasn’t come up at City Hall, Rosenthal said.

“Would the city spend city dollars to buy it from him or preserve it? It’s nothing we’ve really considered,” the mayor said. “We’ve never thought of it, actually. I’m not sure where you would house it, where the city or anybody would house it. But we would love to see it preserved and would consider anything depending on what’s involved because it is unbelievable.”

The collection includes 1,325 toilet seats documenting everything from wedding anniversaries Smith celebrated with his wife of 74 years before she died in 2014, to one featuring a piece of NASA’s space shuttle Challenger.

However, despite his age and arthritis, Smith is constantly finding new pieces.

“I could work day and night — mostly night,” he said. “I can put a toilet seat down on my chair and I can work on it until I get so tired and sleepy, until I’m going in the wrong direction with my Moto Drill, or I’m painting something, and I get over where I’m not even supposed to be, but I’m asleep.”

Smith, a quintessential recycler, said he began using toilet seats as plaques about 50 or 60 years ago after grabbing a few unused ones from a pile by a plumbing supply company’s dumpster. That night, he decorated a lid with a sketch of someone doing judo kicks, which several employees of the company were involved with at the time.

“I took it back to the plumbing supply house, and the next day I said, ‘Here’s what I wanted to do with these toilet seats out here.’ (The employee) said, ‘That’s good. If you’re not going to put them together and sell some of them, if you’re going to do artwork on them, take them all.’”

Since then, hundreds of others have donated materials for Smith’s toilet seats.

“Everybody who comes to visit becomes part of the exhibit, even if it’s just signing the logbook, or oftentimes, he will break out a toilet seat for you to sign,” said Becvar, whose father, Ben Allen Krause, presented the artist with a piece of a toilet from Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s bunker.

Krause, a retired Navy commander, got the fragment while stationed in Iraq in 2004.

“I saw this piece of a toilet seat, and I said, ‘I’m going to get that for Barney,’ and Barney made a plaque, and I gave him a letter of authenticity,” he said.

For many, the draw of the museum is not only the artwork, but Smith himself.

“He is a true San Antonio treasure, something that makes this city unique,” said resident Allen Rindfuss, who organized a surprise party for the artist’s 95th birthday on May 25, 2016, and was instrumental in getting Alamo Heights to proclaim Barney Smith Day.  “In many ways, the exhibition, the artwork experience is secondary to watching him light up and start telling stories.”

Rindfuss and Bye are working together to interview Smith and record his stories. They are looking to join forces with other like-minded people to find a new, permanent home for the collection — perhaps even a new museum of folk art in Alamo Heights for Smith, and others like him.

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