Of the almost 2.5 million of miles of energy pipelines in America, at least one minuscule fraction has made a contribution to the arts, as a Texas sculptor demonstrated in 1993.

Petroleum pipeline sections are part of the 1993 Houston sculpture some call the largest (non-playable) saxophone in the world.

On February 22, Bob “Daddy-O” Wade debuted his 63-foot tall saxophone sculpture at Billy Blues Bar & Grill on Houston’s west side. He and a crew of three transformed two 48-inch-wide sections of steel pipeline into a free-standing sculpture supported by a 25-foot-deep pylon.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds played at the restaurant’s opening gala as the crowd admired Wade’s pipeline artwork, which has the same width as the 800-mile-long Alaskan pipeline (see below). His sculpture also includes a Volkswagen, a surfboard, beer kegs, and assorted incongruent pieces to create a blue-painted saxophone, 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.”

Bob “Daddy-O” Wade used two 48-inch steel sections of pipeline and a Volkswagen to create his work of art.

When Billy Blues Bar & Grill moved from Richmond Avenue to a new site in 2001, the future was uncertain for Houston’s giant pipeline artwork, called by some 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. In 2000, Smokesax was restored, and the big, blue saxophone sculpture “once again stands proudly against the blue Texas sky.” But the iconic sculpture would leave Richmond Avenue.

To ensure preservation in 2013, Houston’s Orange Show Center for Visionary Art acquired Bob “Daddy-O” Wade’s sculpture, which remains a little-known petroleum industry landmark of modern art. Also see Oil in Art.

Modern Petroleum Pipelines

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.

The United States has almost 2.5 Million miles of oil and natural pipelines. Photo courtesy Energy Information Adminsitration.

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, today have 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, is now a generic name for sophisticated in-line inspection tools that target defects with greater accuracy, API noted in 2001.

Today, with construction debated and often controversial, about 2.5 million of miles of petroleum pipelines operate daily as part of U.S. energy infrastructure.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.