A Raleigh couple brings their creativity and unique point of view to retail, music, and art.
by Katie Pate / photography by Eamon Queeney
One night in 2003, Greg Clayton was painting in his basement and created a cartoonish red yak with a serene smile.
“He was a fun, cute, happy little guy,” says Clayton. The character stuck with him. Soon the Rad Yak, as Clayton named him, became a sort of unofficial mascot, a stand-in for the cheerful, spontaneous sort of inspiration that has helped Clayton and his wife, Myra Smith, grow several small businesses over the years.
Clayton and Smith each grew up in small North Carolina towns and first became friends while attending art school at East Carolina University in the early 1990s. After college, they went their separate ways for several years — Clayton toured with a rock band called Lustre, and Smith traveled and taught English abroad — but reconnected once they’d each made their way back to N.C. They soon fell in love, and their marriage has been defined by its artistic endeavors and entrepreneurialism.
“You get to these places in your life when being creative is the necessary thing,” Smith says. “It’s a compulsion.” As a result of their relentless ingenuity, Smith and Clayton have established themselves as an integral part of Raleigh’s local retail and art scenes.
Most days, Clayton can be found running the show at Aardvark Screen Printing, which specializes in designing and printing custom t-shirts. The Whitaker Mill shop, which Clayton has owned and operated for over twenty years, is thoughtfully adorned with vintage advertisements. “It looks like an antique store when you walk in, not a shirt shop,” says Clayton.
At Aardvark, you may find him behind the screen printing press or hand-writing an invoice — or you may hear him upstairs, playing drums after hours with his current band, The Feeds. “I never pictured myself having a big company — that doesn’t excite me,” Clayton explains. “We do everything hands-on.”
At home, Smith refurbishes antiques and creates one-of-a-kind wax encaustic paintings and Japanese-style pottery. Their basement workshop looks like a well-curated step back in time, with a vintage rocking chair in one corner, a mirror covered in wooden lizards (hand-carved by Smith) in another, and the couple’s beagle-hound mix, Roscoe Thelonious Coltrane, shuffling around. The walls are filled with framed screen prints of the Rad Yak and folk art-style creations (see: UFOs surrounded by glittery crumpled beer cans).
For a while, Smith worked as a high school art teacher, but “I’d always been this serial entrepreneur cloaked in public education,” she says. In the late 2010s, Smith and Clayton decided to clear their historic Glenwood-Brooklyn home of some art and antiques they had acquired over the years, but quickly realized there was a business opportunity at hand.
“We both inherited everything at first,” Clayton says. “We were like, how are we gonna get rid of all this stuff? We can’t have a yard sale every week!”
The pair started retailing antiques inside the Cheshire Cat Antique Gallery in the Village District and, along with some of their original artwork and screenprint pieces, through an Etsy shop (named, of course, Rad Yak). And once their personal collection was exhausted, they started sourcing antiques from rural markets and sales, turning yesterday’s junk into new treasures for their customers.
In the meantime, Smith finished a master’s degree in contemplative education and decided to dedicate her work to teaching people practical mindfulness and meditation skills. She started Mindful High School, an effort to bring meditation to teens in their classrooms, and also Mind Juku, for adult practitioners. “I want to help people have a more sane experience while they are here on the planet,” says Smith, who offers classes to clients on a sliding pay scale. “I don’t want mindfulness to be this unreachable, unattainable thing.”
Clayton acknowledges the challenges and rewards of being a small business owner, counting Aardvark lucky that it remained operational during the pandemic. “I didn’t let anybody go when things shut down,” he says. Aardvark’s current location is slated for demolition to make room for new development, and will soon move to a nearby space on the outskirts of Mordecai.
Among all their pursuits, Smith and Clayton look forward to what the future holds. “The shop moving is the next big thing for me,” Clayton says. “It’s stressful, but it’s also exciting — there’s gonna be so much to do.” Smith, for her part, is finishing up the busy season for mindfulness classes, which she says fill up in the winter months, and ready to help her husband reset.
As for the Rad Yak, he continues to be a reminder of optimism and delight for the couple and, they hope, for others. “He’s just a guy that looks very peaceful,” says Clayton. “We hope he brings people joy when they see him.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of WALTER magazine.