For Texas Toilet Seat Artist, 642 and Counting

Sean Markey
National Geographic News
January 27, 2003

Eastland, Texas, has its share of famous native sons. But undoubtedly two of its more colorful would be Old Rip and Barney Smith.

Old Rip, as everyone knows, was the Texas horned toad entombed for 31 years in the cornerstone of the Eastland County Courthouse. Local lore has it that when the courthouse was torn down in 1928, Old Rip was found alive inside the hollow cornerstone time capsule.

Barney Smith, as you may not know, is the Texas king of toilet seat art. For more than 35 years, the retired plumber and high school vocational teacher has whiled away his idle hours decorating the lids of toilet seats.

Now 81, Smith counts 642 lids in his oeuvre.

Smith hasn't lived in his birthplace since 1944. But he did keep the box of marbles he played with as a young boy along the dusty streets of his Texas childhood. Smith glued the marbles onto a toilet lid artwork simply titled 1921 to 1931. The fancifully-decorated toilet lid hangs with 641 others in a converted four-car garage outside his home in Alamo Heights, Texas, that he shares with his wife of 63 years, Velma.

Smith's lids, or plaques, as he is wont to call them, display an eclectic array of motifs: There are genuine Native American arrowheads, Pokemon cards, hairbrushes, and Boy Scout merit badges; bird feathers, coffin handles, and ash from the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Many feature detailed, hand-painted designs. One showcases a real marijuana leaf Smith found while on a plumbing job at a landlord's rental property. (Smith showed the latter to the Alamo Heights police chief Ron Powlas at the time who signed the back of the toilet lid to authorize Smith's display.)

Art types might say that Smith works with "found materials." People who've heard about his craft often send him items. In return for "helping the cause," Smith will inscribe the benefactor's name on of the back of the completed work, forever immortalizing their contribution to the world of America's folk art.

A fellow in Alberta recently mailed Smith three Alberta license plates for his series of license plate toilet lids. Having completed all 50 U.S. states, Smith is now working on the 13 provinces and territories of Canada.

Other people have supplied Smith with more unusual materials for his decorative art. In 1986, a neighbor gave him a small piece of wreckage from the Space Shuttle Challenger, that drifted onto the Florida beach where he and his family witnessed the spaceship's explosion.

While visiting his daughter in Houston, Texas, Smith called the Johnson Space Center hoping to arrange a visit to authenticate the piece and learn what section of the shuttle it came from. But after talking by phone with three "high officials" from the center and getting a final rebuff, Smith said he figured the wreckage was authentic enough for him.

Some materials Smith collects himself. Following his own eye surgery and a hospital trip his wife took to have her gallstones removed, Smith decorated a toilet seat lid with eye patches, surgical bags, plastic syringes, and a photo of his wife on a gurney. But Smith says his wife drew the line when he went looking for her gallstones. "She said you're not about to put my gallstones on that toilet seat lid!" Smith recalled. "So she hid them here in the house. I don't even know where they are."

"A Good Hobby"

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