A walk with the Valencia Street smile lady


“Ooh, out of state, too,” Claire Lemmel winces as a parallel parker crunches his van into the side of a Jaguar. Then she puts her smile back on.

There's a strong possibility you’ve seen Lemmel's teeth, either on her “smile car” or on the enlarged mounted photo she holds while sauntering daily down Valencia Street. Lemmel takes her smile to the movies. She takes it to the ophthalmologist. The gleaming eight-inch incisors could be frightening, but no one seems to think so.

Instead, Lemmel’s interactive art generates exactly what she wants it to: interpersonal connection. It’s fascinating to walk with this earnest, sunhatted woman and watch the reactions. 

Most people avert their eyes, glance again, avert once more, and start to involuntarily smile as they walk. Others engage directly, laughing or quickly snapping a photo. Cars honk, bicyclists stare, and narrowly avoid injury. “Are you a dentist?” seems to be the most common question, “awesome” the most frequent comment. Lemmel began her smile project one year ago as part of a public art initiative called CONNECT. 

“People are always texting,” she says, “but they’re not connecting. They’re unengaged, even as they interact.” Lemmel has made it her daily mission to spread goodwill, roaming her Mission neighborhood and beyond with the sign. Walking behind her is a bit bizarre; ten or eleven oncoming faces will split in unison into grins. 

It doesn’t hurt Lemmel’s cause that she’s extremely personable, blessed with both good teeth and a warm Texas drawl. Mission shopkeepers, walkers, and street vendors know her and expect her. Many folks seem to take the sign as an invitation to flirt rather shamelessly with Lemmel, who chucklingly engages and walks on.  

And it’s hard to imagine, after a Valencia Street cruising session with this beaming being, a time that she isn’t smiling. But everyone has their limit, and two hours is Lemmel’s. She walks home with tired cheeks, the mouth tucked under her arm still joyful.