Barney Smith has decorated toilet seat covers for all 50 states. He gets new covers free from the manufacturer.

Garage overflows
with toilet cover art

Texas artist finds his muse in
scrap from a plumbing supply store

SAN ANTONIO >> I'm driving up and down Abiso Street in the Alamo Heights neighborhood looking for Barney Smith's art museum when I see him opening his garage door.

Smith takes out an orange traffic cone, sticks an American flag in it and I know I'm in the right place.

"Welcome," Smith tells me. "Are you here to see my toilet seat covers?"

When I travel, I like to visit art museums. I've been to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute in Chicago, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Getty, the Norton Simon, etc.

Barney Smith's "Toilet Seat Art Museum" is nothing like those. For one thing, the museum is in his garage, which also doubles as his workshop.

There are no docents, only Smith. There's no admission fee and no regular hours. The museum's open whenever he's home and the cone and flag are on display.

Artist Barney Smith says this toilet seat cover commemorating a cruise to Hawaii he and his wife took to celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary is his favorite piece.

Smith is happy to show visitors around and tell stories about his art and how he got started painting and making collages on toilet seat covers.

It helps that he's a retired plumber and a bit of a pack rat. He says he was visiting the plumbing supply store one day and they were throwing out toilet seat covers. He asked if he could have them and an art movement was born.

"I started in '91. I was 70 (years old)," Smith said. Now there are more than 600 toilet seat covers in his garage.

"It's quite a showplace and I enjoy showing it," Smith said. "There's a story behind every one of these."

You can decide for yourself whether toilet seat covers qualify as art.

Many of the pieces are personal. His first piece features dog tags from a favorite pet. Others comprise mementos from vacations, anniversaries and birthdays. He starts next year's birthday toilet seat cover in advance so he knows he has to be around to finish it.

Some are kitschy. He's got toilet seat covers commemorating each Superbowl, as well as works devoted to wrestling, POGs and volunteer firefighters.

Barney Smith shows off his workshop. The boxes at left contain everything from mink fur to plastic toys.

All reflect a personal vision. None are for sale. Smith says he's attached to each one and doesn't want to part with them.

There are license plate tributes to all 50 states, and an anti-drug toilet seat cover with a real marijuana leaf that he got permission to use.

Smith likes to joke that after seeing his collection, someone asked him if he'd lost his marbles. "No," he says. "I just put them on a toilet seat."

As for his favorite toilet seat cover -- "When my wife is here I always say it's the wedding anniversary one," he says, pointing to a cover made to commemorate an anniversary cruise around the Hawaiian Islands.

His wife, Smith admits, is not a fan of his art and won't allow it in the house.

"She wants me to do something else," he says.

SMITH'S HOBBY would not be a museum now, if he hadn't had a garage sale about 11 years ago.

Smith was selling his standard oil paintings on canvas. An art professor came by and Smith offered to show him his toilet seat covers. The professor was more impressed by the covers than his paintings and called a local television station.

A reporter came over and did a story. Soon, other people were calling to ask if they could see the toilet seat covers, followed by the national media. Reporters from ABC, NBC, CBS, the New York Times, Life magazine, "The Montel Williams Show," even an industry publication called "Bathroom Today" showed up.

These days, more than a thousand people a year visit Smith's garage. He keeps a record of everyone who signs his guest log. I'm the eighth person from Hawaii to visit.

All of his toilet seat covers are cataloged and Smith keeps all his press clips. You can pull up a seat and read them if you like. There's also a television and VCR so you can view the TV reports on his museum.

One reporter starts: "You never know where you'll find great art. You might be sitting on top of it."

Recently, Smith says, a Korean television reporter came over to do a story. The producer asked to use the restroom in the house.

"I think it was a ruse," Smith says, because the producer came running out and grabbed the cameraman and reporter and brought them into the bathroom.

Speaking in Korean, the reporter did a stand-up in Smith's bathroom. With a big flourish the reporter went over to Smith's toilet and the camera zoomed in on Smith's plain, white, unadorned commode.

Smith's art can also be seen online at


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