I met Val Yandell and Jane Brooks in my hometown of Fairfax, CA. at their corner of The Garage – a Marin County pop-up space that houses a local indie design market. It’s a groovy new artists’ collective where I’ve found a treasure trove of vintage and imaginative handmade items. And since I don’t often meet many cute, interesting lesbian couples in this town—I asked Val a few questions to learn more about their work and life together.
E: I love the work you do at Smiling Dog Studio, how did it all get started?
VY: When Jane and I met we quickly bonded around our shared love of creativity. Jane was working as a Graphic Designer and I was studying painting after years as a photographer/waiter. We were living in Austin, TX and both eager for change. Jane’s status as a Canadian living in the US was tied to her work visa as a Graphic Designer so in order for us to freelance together we decided to move to her hometown of Toronto. Canada had just legalized same sex marriage, which would allow us to apply for my Permanent Residency via spousal sponsorship.
We lived in Canada for 4 years and formed Smiling Dog Studio; a collaborative that combined our various talents in art, design and photography.
It was on a road trip to California to visit a friend who was recovering from a difficult surgery that we decided to stay. I grew up in Texas but was born in California and had always longed to move back. Jane fell immediately in love with the Bay Area and we made the big decision to stay and help our friend through the first stages of her recovery.
E: The Garage is my new favorite place to visit in town, there is always something new and worth checking out. Tell us what gave you the idea for this amazing collaborative space.
We met Michele of Sunny Day Salvage at the Fairfax Holiday Fair. We all hit it off immediately but Michele and I bonded around our shared vision of a space for artists and makers to sell their wares but also share the responsibility of a retail space. The conversation turned quickly to dreaming about what we could do with the vacant garage on Sir Francis Drake. After a few months of dreaming one of the original members of The Garage wrote the proposal that brought The Garage into being.
The concept allows the artist/vendors to co-exist under one roof and share the responsibility of rent and running the retail business, but also creates an environment where we can get back in our own studios to do our work. The collective talent at The Garage also helped us to quickly build a brand and a name for ourselves. We remain independent studio businesses while we share The Garage space and brand.
E: How did the passage of Doma change your status as a Binational couple?
VY: Although we are legally married in Canada and in California (previous to Prop 8), The passage of the Defense of Marriage Act meant that our union was not recognized on a Federal level.
Once Jane’s visitor visa ran out, her remaining in the States depended on her working as a Graphic Designer to obtain a visa. Finding a job in her field given the economy and a market saturated with Graphic Designers, was not easy. A part time Graphic Design job eventually fell into place but we have always been painfully aware of the inequity of the situation. Her family lives in Toronto and British Columbia and every border crossing was a risk that she might not be able to come back.
With DOMA struck down we are now in the process of obtaining a spousal sponsored green card. Having a green card means Jane will be able to live and work in the states and travel freely.
It also means that Smiling Dog Studio will be able to become “our” business again and Jane will be able to join Michele and I in The Garage’s General Partnership.
E: Anything else you’d like to add?
VY: About the name Smiling Dog Studio. The original “smiling dog” was our big shy doberman-greyhound mix Jesse, who smiled when she thought she was in trouble! She smiled a lot! Working at home means we are with our dogs much of the time. We are humbled by their unconditional love and loyalty. We honor what they teach us. Smile, romp, sleep in the sun, stretch, stay curious.