Bob “Daddy-O” Wade used petroleum pipelines to create a Texas landmark.
Of about 2.5 million miles of U.S. energy pipelines, at least one small fraction has contributed to the arts, as an offbeat Texas sculptor demonstrated in 1993.
Many Texans have seen monumental sculptures of Bob “Daddy-O” Wade (1943-2019), who was known for “keeping it weird” since he arrived in Austin in 1961, according to Texas A&M University Press.
Remembered for artwork reflecting the spirit of Texas’ sense of scale, “Daddy-O” in 1993 completed a 63-foot tall saxophone sculpture at a nightclub on Houston’s west side.
Wade and his crew of three transformed two 48-inch-wide sections of steel pipeline into a free-standing sculpture supported by a 25-foot-deep pylon for the opening of Billy Blues Bar & Grill. The Fabulous Thunderbirds played at the restaurant’s February 20 gala as the crowd admired Wade’s pipeline artwork, which has the same width as the 800-mile-long Alaskan pipeline.
The giant sculpture also incorporated almost all of a Volkswagen, a surfboard, beer kegs, and other incongruous pieces to create a blue-painted saxophone, soon known around Houston as the “Smokesax.”
Although deemed by the Houston City Council to be art and thus not subject to signage ordinances, it took arguments about the First Amendment to reach that decision; the “Smokesax” had been accused of violating Houston’s sign ordinance prohibiting advertising billboards taller than 40 feet.
“While embraced by the local art community, the Sax was targeted by the Houston Sign Administration as being in violation of the Houston Sign Code,” noted the trade publication Billboard Insider in 2018.
The creative use of 48-inch-wide steel pipe was noted by the Fort Worth Star Telegram, which described artist Wade as a, “pioneer of Texas Funk and connoisseur of Southwestern kitsch.” Even musician Willie Nelson opined, “Now that I understand art, I realize what a genius Daddy-O Wade really is.”
Other notable Wade artwork includes 40-foot-tall cowboy boots outside the North Star Mall in San Antonio, and a 12-foot-tall iguana at the Ft. Worth Zoo’s animal hospital.
When Billy Blues Bar & Grill moved from Richmond Avenue to a new site in 2001, the future was uncertain for Houston’s pipeline pop art, declared by some as the largest (non-playable) saxophone in the world. After the club closed, the building stood empty for years, and the sculpture was neglected, as well as vandalized, noted one Houston blogger. But in 2000, Smokesax was restored, and the blue saxophone “once again stands proudly against the blue Texas sky.”
The iconic Austin sculpture left Richmond Avenue to ensure preservation; in 2013, Houston’s Orange Show Center for Visionary Art acquired Bob “Daddy-O” Wade’s 63-foot imaginative work, which today remains a petroleum industry milestone of modern art.
Also see Oil in Art.
Modern Pipeline Infrastructure
Oil and natural gas pipelines have been part of the petroleum industry since the earliest U.S wells. During the World War II, “Big Inch” pipelines with diameters of 24 inches and 20 inches connected prolific Texas oilfields with Chicago and East Coast refineries.
Since starting operations in June 1977, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System has delivered more than 17.5 billion barrels of oil from North Slope and Prudhoe Bay oilfields(as of 2018). The pipeline’s maximum throughput was more than 2 million barrels of oil a day in 1988.
Giant storage tanks at Cushing, Oklahoma, in the late 2010s reached a capacity of 85 million barrels of oil, enhancing the town’s self-proclaimed status as “Pipeline Crossroads of the World.”
Since the 1990s, companies have used “in-line” tools to inspect for corrosion and other defects while the pipelines stay in use, according to the American Petroleum Institute. An electronic “smart pig,” introduced in 1965, became a now generic name for sophisticated in-line inspection tools that target defects with greater accuracy, API noted in 2001.
With construction debated and often controversial, by 2018 about 2.5 million of miles of petroleum pipelines operated daily as part of U.S. energy infrastructure.
Recommended Reading: Daddy-O’s Book of Big-Ass Art (2020); Oil: From Prospect to Pipeline (1971) and Oil and Gas Pipeline Fundamentals (1993). Your Amazon purchases benefit the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “’Smokesax’ Art has Pipeline Heart.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-art/smokesax-art-has-pipeline-heart. Last Updated: February 15, 2021. Original Published Date: February 18, 2019.