On her way back from a meeting about hosting women in New York City for their second-term abortions, artist and co-founder of the arts organization Wassaic Project, Eve Biddle, had a chance encounter. While on the train, a fellow volunteer asked her, “What are you doing next?” When Biddle replied that she’s an artist and wants to do public art, the woman just so happened to know of an organization that could help. She connected Biddle and her husband, Joshua Frankel, to New York Cares, a non-profit focused on social issues throughout the city. That connection went on to inspire “Queens Is The Future,” their mural in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of the borough. It was painted in 2007 and lasted for seven years before it was co-opted by Sony Pictures for The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Flash forward to 2022 and now Biddle and Frankel have finally taken their work back with a restoration debuting today, 19 July.
The first time the artists painted their mural, they did a site visit with the public school they were paired with, IS 145. During the tour, there was a fire drill—which was how Biddle came across a handball court on Northern Boulevard. Immediately, she knew she wanted to paint it. “It was sort of this New York-y, happenstance story that brought all of these different elements of our lives together,” Biddle tells COOL HUNTING. Those elements culminated in the duo’s empowering and hopeful mural for the students and local residents of Queens.
With a layout inspired by early 20th century cruise ship and World’s Fair ads and bold, striking text informed by Barbra Kruger and Jenny Holzer, the mural balances the couple’s artistic sensibilities with the students’ input. In finding inspiration for the work, Biddle and Frankel worked with the school’s art teacher and spoke to her students about what they wanted. “They were like, ‘Paint something great, but make sure we can see the handball court lines,'” recalls Frankel. “That partly drove the aesthetic of the mural, because handballs are black and blue mostly and they wanted to be able to see the ball,” adds Biddle. As such, the mural’s design is clean and minimal, using a white background that will help the kids see the balls when they play during the day or night. Red accents and pink stripes that demarcate the in-bound areas integrate functionality into the design.
We wanted to be this ear worm for the kids that you are also extraordinary
“We talked to the students about their neighborhood and what are the big features of the neighborhood, and of course the subway is really present in Jackson Heights,” explains Biddle. This motivated the artists to spotlight a train that is flying forward off the tracks as a focal point for the mural. The subway, Biddle continues, “is so ordinary but so powerful. You can get anywhere in New York… It’s this incredible freedom. So when we were developing this concept of the train becoming a rocket and taking off it was this idea of the ordinary becoming extraordinary. We wanted to be this ear worm for the kids that they are also extraordinary.”
Across the top of the handball court in a bright red banner, the mural proclaims “Queens Is The Future,” a sentiment that Biddle and Frankel believe wholeheartedly. On one hand, the phrase is literal, as “you’re talking to kids and kids literally are the future,” Frankel says. But on the other hand, he explains how the borough represents a better world: “Queens is one of the most diverse places in the city, in the country, in the world—that’s fantastic, beautiful and exciting. More of the world is going to look like that, and that’s a good thing.” The mural then is also imbued with a sense of futurism and optimistic spirit.
“Queens is one of the most diverse places in the city, in the country, in the world—that’s fantastic, beautiful and exciting
That original celebration of Queens, however, was short-lived. In 2014, Sony desecrated the mural with the inclusion of the geographically inaccurate Statue of Liberty and Spider-Man who is seen lifting the train off of the track to “rescue” the kids inside. The media conglomerate not only violated the mural without permission of the artists (whose names were on the handball court itself), but they also transformed a community-oriented work of art into promotion for a movie.
It took eight years for Biddle and Frankel to finally restore the painting back to its original form. The motivation to do so took shape in 2021 after a massive fire hit the community. In response, the Queens Long Distance Running Club asked the artists if they could make shirts with the mural’s original design for a benefit for victims of the fire. Seeing a desire for their design in the community struck a chord for Biddle and Frankel.
“I had all these wonderful conversations about the mural and about the original design, and it was through that that I really gathered the feeling that there was this desire to restore it,” Frankel tells us. Motivated by this response, the pair spoke with the principal of IS 145 and began fundraising on their own for the mural’s restoration. All the funding came locally, from politicians in the area to organizations like Project Queens and Queens-based streetwear brand Awake NY.
As opposed to Sony, who did not use the proper materials to create an enduring mural on concrete, the couple did months of research to test paints and sealants that could withstand being hit over and over again with balls every day. They stripped the wall entirely, primed it with a concrete-specific paint and selected the same type of acrylic paint used on cruise ships, as well as the same sealant found in oil rigs.
This time around the handball court features public art on both sides, which, as the pair tells us, also happened by chance. Erick Teran, a local Jackson Heights artist, had emailed the couple asking if he could paint a design on the same handball court, not knowing that they planned to restore it. “We said, ‘We’ll do you one better. We’re going to prepare the whole wall and you can do a mural on the other side,'” Biddle explains. “He had this idea to do a community-wide survey and he surveyed hundreds of people in the neighborhood asking what they wanted to see in a mural. We introduced him to the principal and the principal was on board and not only is his community-sourced mural finished and looks fantastic, he now teaches art at IS 145.”
Art in public space is tremendously powerful, but it requires support from organizations that are often bigger than the artists
The triumphant return of “Queens Is The Future”, driven by and for the community, attests to the enduring appeal of public art—but it shouldn’t solely be a community responsibility. “One of the takeaways for me in this story is the importance of art institutions to help protect and take care of work in public spaces,” says Frankel. “Art in public space is tremendously powerful, but it requires support from organizations that are often bigger than the artists.” The fight to have this work restored proves that the significance of public works is as powerful as ever.
Hero image courtesy of the artists