14: The Museum

 

Hightower With over sixteen-hundred employees worldwide, Bemis Manufacturing serves consumer, commercial, medical and industrial markets. They make the bright red plastic shopping carts you see at Target. But that’s not what Bemis is known for.

 

Narrator As the shadow of the great depression fell over the country, businesses faced a difficult choice: adapt to evolving consumer needs or fail.

 

Albert Bemis chose to adapt.

 

In 1932 he took a chance on a new product line: toilet seats. When a local seat manufacturing company filed for bankruptcy, Albert saw an opportunity to diversify the Bemis product line.

 

Hightower You see, Bemis is the world’s largest maker of toilet seats. If you happen to be listening to this podcast while seated on a toilet, chances are its seat was made by Bemis.

 

Headquartered in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, Bemis was established by two brothers and has been in business for over a hundred years. They started out manufacturing wood toy wagons and small furniture. In the 1930s they also began producing wooden toilet seats. During the Second World War when rationing made the use of brass hinges prohibitively expensive, Bemis developed an innovative plastic hinge that allowed the company to become the industry leader.

 

Granted that industry was toilet seat manufacturing, but someone has to be the leader and Bemis is proud to have that distinction.

 

A legacy is defined not by what you do first or last, but by what you do with the opportunities that present themselves along the way. For example, over the course of his long life Barney Smith has been a preacher and a plumber; a husband, and a father. But what he’s best known for is creating a museum – a museum of toilet seat art.

 

That’s what we’re going to talk about on this, the fourteenth episode of The Works – a podcast about Architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.

 

I’m Brantley Hightower.

 

Ever since I moved to San Antonio I had heard rumors of a toilet seat museum tucked away on some residential street in Alamo Heights. Alamo Heights is its own little town and is completely surrounded by the much larger city of San Antonio. I drive through it every time I take my kids to school.

 

And as it turns out, I drive right by the Toilet Seat Art Museum.

 

The museum itself is pretty easy to miss. The collection sits in an unassuming metal building. It was originally built as a detached garage and only later came to be used as a museum. There is nothing to identify the unusual collection inside except for a small yard sign that says “free museum” with phone number written underneath.

 

The phone number belongs to Barney Smith, the curator of the museum and the artist responsible for most of its collection. If you dial the number of the sign, he’ll call you right back.

 

Automated voice There is no one available to take your call at the moment, so please leave a message after the tone.

 

Barney This is Barney Smith down at the Toilet Seat Art Museum in Alamo Heights. Someone rang my number, but they didn't stay on the line long enough for me to know where they're from or what they were up to. So if they want to see the Toilet Seat Museum, give me a ring at 824-7791, 210 area code, 824-7791. The Toilet Seat Art Museum. Give me a ring and I'll set up a date, and I'll open up the doors, and let them see my museum. Bye now.

 

Hightower When I met Barney Smith he was wearing a light blue guayabera that matched the light blue of his eyes. His white hair was neatly pulled back. Barney is ninety-four years old and walks with a bamboo cane. The cane doubles as a pointer to identify various toilet seats as he shares the story behind their creation.

 

Barney told me about growing up in Texas and Tennessee and about working as a plumber. Once he had moved back to Texas he would spend his free time painting in his garage. It was mostly a hobby back then, but he would sell a painting from time to time.

 

Bareny I belonged to some of the art guilds, and I even took my artwork, my oil paintings, down to the River Walk at the starving artist show that we have here in San Antonio, and I have sold a few.

 

Hightower His work back then was oil on canvas. But an artist like Barney is not limited to only one means of expression.

 

Barney I even went to a plumbing supply house and they had about 50 toilet seats laying down low on the dock. They were going to put them in the dumpster and take them to city dump and destroy them. And I asked them, “What are you going to do with those toilet seats out there on the dock?”

 

He said, “We're going to get rid of those. We'll destroy them.”

 

And I said, “Well I'd like to take some of them home to do some artwork on.”

 

Hightower And just like that, Barney found a completely new canvas for his art.

 

Although this turn of events represented a significant shift in the direction of Barney’s work, no one knew about it. No one would know about it for years. He continued painting in his garage as he had done before only now he was painting on and creating collages with toilet seats.

  

It was only by chance that the world found out about his toilet seat art at all. Barney was showing his more traditional oil-on-canvas paintings to a patron who was interested in buying some of his work. This visitor was intrigued when he caught sight of Barney’s growing body of toilet seat art in his garage. He said Barney should share it with the world. Barney disagreed.

 

Barney I said, “That's my hobby.”

 

A few days later a camera crew from WOAI News Four San Antonio showed up at his door.

 

Barney And I said, “Well you can't come and film. He said, “Well somebody was in there and said that you had something that we needed to show the world.”

 

So they twisted my arm so bad until I came out of there with it all twisted. But I told them, “Come in and film.”

 

Hightower And just like that, Barney’s hobby became something more.

 

Barney The next couple of days, the other… TV shows, contacted me. And I said that that's already been filmed, already been aired. And they said, “Well you know that we've got a different viewing audience than Channel Four.” And that was Twelve and Channel Five. And so I said, “Well come on.”

 

Hightower In the 1989 film Field of Dreams, a mysterious voice tells Kevin Costner, “If you build it, he will come.” Barney didn’t hear a voice. He didn’t set out to build a museum in his back yard. He was just doing something he enjoyed. That hobby got a little bit of attention and then people started showing up to see for themselves.

 

Lots of people. 

 

Barney So after they filmed it and put it on the show, and they showed it all nationwide, well then I said, “Well I'll just open up my doors.” My telephone rang off the wall. I said, well, they said well we saw your Toilet Seat Museum. It wasn't a museum then, it was just a hobby. We saw your toilet seat hobby on the TV the other night and wanted to come and see it. I said, “Come on.”

 

Hightower Barney’s Toilet Seat Art Museum averages about a thousand visitors a year. I’m not going to try and describe all the toilet seats to you – you should see for yourself – but when you do you’ll quickly realize that a visit to the museum isn’t about seeing Barney collection itself. It’s about experiencing them with their creator. As Barney walks you through the museum, you’re learning about his art, yes, and the things that inspire him. But you are also learning about a man, about his life and about yours.

 

With any work of art there is the object itself, but there’s also the story behind the art. That story can be universal or personal, big or small. The story that Barney’s art tells is the story of his life. And it’s been a good one. He shared most of it with his wife of seventy-four years. He would celebrate their anniversary with – you guessed it – a commemorative toilet seat.

 

Barney Got a 57 years here, '62, '59, '60, '61 in Wengen, Switzerland, '63 up in Ruidoso, New Mexico... Down to the last anniversary that I got to hang up is right there. You'll run across my 74 years right there underneath the bottom.

 

Hightower One of his toilet seats contains a piece of the Berlin Wall. Another contains a piece of a toilet from one of Saddam Hussein palaces in Baghdad. Barney didn’t collect these artifacts himself – instead other people brought them to him. They wanted to share a part of their stories with Barney just as Barney wanted to share his story with them.

 

What’s most remarkable about the art displayed at the Toilet Seat Art Museum isn’t that it’s art created form toilet parts. Well, maybe that is part of it - maybe that’s what get’s you in the door. But what makes it meaningful is that every one of the one thousand, two hundred and twenty seven seats in the collection tells a part of Barney’s story or the story of someone who has crossed his path.  They all add up to a life well lived – a life that’s still being lived.

 

Barney I'm working on the 1,228th that's in the house here on the...but I'm still a working on them.

 

We don’t get to write our own legacy. Others write it for us. When Barney saved those fifty toilet seats from going to the dump, he had no way of knowing that they would become intertwined with his legacy. Just like Francis and Herbert Bemis had no idea that their name, like Barney’s, would forever be associated with toilet seats.

 

Barney And here a lady contacted me from Bemis toilet seat manufacturing company up in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin. She said that what's going to happen to these whenever you're gone? She said I'd like to have them up in our little museum, up in Sheboygan Falls. I said you can't have them as long as I'm alive because I'm having too much fun showing off my art.

 

Hightower Before I left, Barney wanted to show me his favorite work in his collection. Like every other toilet seat he described, it started out with a story.

 

Barney But I wanted to tell you about my favorite. I wanted to tell you about a little story of a 12-year old boy that was in the same grade with me in Easton, Texas… and his teacher gave him this poem to say in the 5th grade, and it was written by Rudyard Kipling.

 

Hightower The toilet seat Barney was standing in front of was crafted to look like a painter’s palette. In the middle an area had been cut out to act as a frame for a sheet of paper. I assumed the paper once contained the carefully hand-written text of the Kipling poem, but eight decades had faded the ink so that the paper almost looked blank.

 

It didn’t matter, though. Barney wasn’t looking at it as he recited the poem, “When Earth's Last Picture Is Painted”:

 

Barney When the oldest colors have faded

And the youngest critic has died

We shall rest, and faith, we shall need it

Lie down for an aeon or two

'Till the Master of all good workmen

Shall put us to work anew

And those that were good shall be happy

They'll sit in a golden chair

They'll splash at a ten-league canvas

With brushes of comet's hair

They'll find real saints to draw from

Magdalene, Peter, and Paul

They'll work for an age at a sitting

And never be tired at all.

And only the Master shall praise us.

And only the Master shall blame.

And no one will work for the money.

No one will work for the fame.

But each for the joy of the working,

And each, in his separate star,

Will draw the thing as he sees it.

For the God of things as they are!

 

I knew that little 12-year-old boy personally, because it was me. She gave it to me to say in a declamation piece when I was 12 years old… So this is my little favorite.

 

Hightower Thanks today Barney Smith and the Toilet Seat Art Museum. The music today was by Chris Zabriskie.

 

The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today – including some links to photos and videos of Barney and his museum - at Hi dot Works.

 

Barney You want me to tell you who I am?

 

Hightower Uh, sure. Be my guest.

 

I'm Barney Smith. I'm here at Alamo Heights and I am the curator of a Toilet Seat Art Museum. So I want you to tell your friends about me and let them know that I'm still kicking but I'm not kicking very high at the age of 94.

Hightower Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.