The ‘King of the Com­mode’ seeks an heir to his thrones

China Daily (Latin America Weekly) - - Life -

Plumage

ALAMO HEIGHTS, Texas — For sale: One tiny king­dom, with many thrones. But it doesn’t come with a hereditary ti­tle.

That be­longs, in per­pe­tu­ity, to Bar­ney Smith — the undis­puted “King of the Com­mode”. “There’s a lot of me in there,” he says, sit­ting in front of the cor­ru­gated metal garage he’s dubbed his Toi­let Seat Art Mu­seum.

There’s a lot of, well, every­thing in there.

Smith has one seat dec­o­rated with a chunk of the Ber­lin Wall and an­other with a piece of in­su­la­tion from the doomed Shut­tle Chal­lenger. There are lids fes­tooned with flint ar­row­heads, Civil War Minie balls, Am­trak train keys, Pez dis­pensers — even $1 mil­lion in shred­ded green­backs from the Fed­eral Re­serve Bank in San An­to­nio.

Every inch of door, wall and ceil­ing space is cov­ered.

The sign out front — a com­mode lid, of course — says Smith’s art is “not for sale”. But af­ter five decades and count­less of­fers, the king says every­thing must go.

“At 96, I come out here with a cane. I’ve gotta hold onto every­thing to walk,” says Smith, who is bent with arthri­tis and strug­gles to swing the creak­ing metal doors open for vis­i­tors. “I’m be­gin­ning to feel like that I’d rather be in an air-con­di­tioned home in a chair, look­ing at a good pro­gram.” Still, walk­ing away will be hard. “This is my life’s his­tory here,” he says.

It started more than 50 years ago, as a way to dis­play hunt­ing tro­phies.

Smith says his fa­ther would spend hours cut­ting out, sand­ing and var­nish­ing wooden shields to mount his antlers. The son fig­ured a toi­let seat lid would do just fine.

“Well, I’m a mas­ter plumber, re­tired,” he says. “I thought I ought to stick with my trade.”

Smith had promised his wife, Louise, that he’d stop at 500. That was 850 toi­let seats ago.

“If I would have just read my Bi­ble as many hours as I spent on my toi­let seats, I’d be a bet­ter man,” he says with a twin­kle in his eye.

Smith’s work­shop is stacked floor to ceil­ing with card­board boxes filled with odds and ends. He en­graves his works with castoff drills do­nated by a lo­cal den­tist.

Smith read­ily ad­mits that he’s no Jasper Johns.

“The ab­stract artist would take it and he would spray a lit­tle paint over here and a lit­tle bit of paint here and say, ‘This is the Alamo,’” Smith says with dis­gust. “I do de­tail.”

Smith toiled in ob­scu­rity un­til an artist who’d come by to see some of his oil paint­ings caught a glimpse of his garage and told a lo­cal TV sta­tion.

“They twisted my arm so un­til I said to come on,” Smith says.

The piece aired on a Fri­day. The fol­low­ing Mon­day, two other sta­tions came call­ing. Then came the tourists.

“And so I just slung the door open,” he says.

Smith of­fi­cially opened as a mu­seum in 1992. Since then, vis­i­tors from every state and 83 for­eign coun­tries have made their way to this lit­tle mu­nic­i­pal­ity com­pletely sur­rounded by the city of San An­to­nio.

He asks that vis­i­tors make an ap­point­ment. But he doesn’t turn any­one away.

Smith uses his walk­ing stick to point out his fa­vorites. Like a lava­tory seat from the air­plane that car­ried billionaire Aris­to­tle Onas­sis’s body home to Greece.

He re­gales tourists with the tale of “Old Rip”, the “horny toad” who emerged alive af­ter 31 years en­tombed in the court­house cor­ner­stone in his home­town of East­land, Texas. He also treats each to a recita­tion of “When Earth’s Last Picture is Painted” — a Rud­yard Ki­pling poem he was as­signed to learn in fifth grade.

No one leaves with­out sign­ing his guest­book — and a toi­let seat.

Smith is cur­rently work­ing on a seat com­mem­o­rat­ing the 2018 Win­ter Olympics in South Ko­rea. He sus­pects that will be his last.

In 2014, he lost Louise, his wife of 74 years. A few months ago, he fell and broke two ribs.

Daugh­ter Ju­lia Mur­ders says they’ve had of­fers. A man from In­dia, who wanted to buy the col­lec­tion for his daugh­ter, of­fered $20,000 — about $15 per seat.

“We dis­cussed it and we said, ‘Daddy, you know, you’ve been do­ing this your whole life. The last few years of your life, you’ve done noth­ing but this,’” says Mur­ders, 69, who lives nearby.

Peo­ple have told Smith that he’s sit­ting on a pot of gold. But Smith isn’t look­ing to cash in.

“I want all 1,350 to be in­tact in an­other mu­seum some­where,” he says. “It’s not the high­est bid­der. It’s not be­ing raf­fled off.”

Austin writer and pub­lisher Daedelus Hoff­man says Smith and his col­lec­tion are price­less. And he wants to help pre­serve that legacy.

His Cat­ty­wam­pus Press raised more than $30,000 to pro­duce a full­color, cloth­bound book about Smith. “King of the Com­mode: Bar­ney Smith & His Toi­let Seat Art Mu­seum” was re­leased last Satur­day, just in time for Smith’s 97th birth­day.

Hoff­man hopes the book will help Smith at­tract a suit­able buyer. If noth­ing else, he wanted to at least “doc­u­ment this piece of Amer­i­cana.”

“For me, Bar­ney’s story is about the in­nate hu­man de­sire to cre­ate and com­mu­ni­cate,” Hoff­man says. “He is a folk artist. And his story and his life work mer­its preser­va­tion.”

Smith would love for the col­lec­tion to re­main where it is. But if it must move to re­main in­tact, so be it.

“I’m ready to give it up and let it go to London,” he says.

The Lou­vre, per­haps?

PHO­TOS BY ERIC GAY / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Bar­ney Smith, 96, walks through his Toi­let Seat Art Mu­seum in Alamo Heights, Texas. Smith, called “King of the Com­mode”, be­gan his com­mode art work in 1992 and is look­ing for a buyer who will pre­serve his col­lec­tion in­tact.

Re­tired plumber

— Land­scape emer­ald ear­rings;

Clock­wise from top: — plum blos­som ear­rings; — pro­pi­tious twig ear­rings.

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