Bob “Daddy-O” Wade used petroleum pipelines to create a Texas landmark.

 

Of about 2.5 million miles of U.S. energy pipelines, an offbeat Texas sculptor in 1993 creatively adapted 96 inches to create a Houston jazz club’s iconic blue saxophone.

Many Texans have seen monumental sculptures of the artist Bob “Daddy-O” Wade (1943-2019), who was known for “keeping it weird” since making the scene in Austin in 1961, according to Texas A&M University Press. Remembered for artwork reflecting a Texas sense of scale, “Daddy-O” in February 1993 completed a 63-foot saxophone sculpture in front of a jazz club on Houston’s west side.

Bob "Daddy-O" Wade giant saxophone made from oil pipelines

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

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.

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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.

Bob "Daddy-O" Wade oil pipeline saxophone under construcion

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

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 artwork was neglected (as well as vandalized), according to a Houston blogger. Restored in 2000, the gig blue sax left its Richmond Avenue location to ensure preservation.

In 2013, Houston’s Orange Show Center for Visionary Art acquired Bob “Daddy-O” Wade’s sculpture, a petroleum industry milestone of modern art.

Also see Oil in Art.

Petroleum Pipelines

Oil and natural gas pipelines have been part of the petroleum industry since the earliest U.S wells. A Venango County, Pennsylvania, pipeline constructed in February 1863 attempted to link oil wells to the Humboldt Refinery at Oil City about2.5 miles away. Inventor J.L. Hutchings of New Jersey used his newly patented rotary pumps to move oil through the two-inch diameter piping.

Although the rotary pumps were an important innovation, Hutchings’ cast-iron pipe proved impractical after its soldered joints leaked. In 1865, another inventor completed the world’s first successful oil pipeline.

Samuel Van Syckel, an oil trader who wanted to break the petroleum region’s teamsters monopoly, constructed a two-inch-wide, wrought iron pipeline that used threaded joints. The pipeline successfully transported 2,000 barrels a day to a railroad depot more than five miles away.

Another pipeline technology milestone came during World War II. The industry-government partnership “Big Inch” pipelines with diameters of 24 inches and 20 inches connected prolific Texas oilfields with Chicago and East Coast refineries.

united states map of pipelines

More than 2.6 million miles of pipelines every year deliver trillions of cubic feet of natural gas (red) and and hundreds of billions of tons of liquid petroleum products (blue). Image courtesy U.S. Energy Information Administration.

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.

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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.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2022 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 10, 2022. Original Published Date: February 18, 2019.

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