Plein air paintings of a vanishing neighborhood, printed in a risograph book
Willets Point’s days are numbered. Known as the Iron Triangle, it is an industrial neighborhood in Corona, Queens, consisting of auto shops, scrap yards, and small businesses, supported by and serving a working-class immigrant population. The area has unpaved roads, no sewers, and lacks city services, though it’s heavily taxed. In 2022 the City of New York reached an agreement with New York City FC to raze the neighborhood and build a stadium.
Last Days at the Iron Triangle is a self-published risograph book of plein air watercolor paintings made in the streets and among the businesses of Willets Point. Alongside the paintings are photos, historical images, and oral histories gathered from people working in the area. The project captures a fleeting moment in time as a unique New York microcosm vanishes.
The paintings were printed by hand and assembled in a 40-page softcover risograph book, produced at the School of Visual Arts RisoLAB in New York City.
Last Days at the Iron Triangle is a self-published 40-page softcover risograph book, measuring 12.5×9.25 in. (23.5×31.57 cm.), featuring richly colored risograph prints of watercolor paintings, digitally colorized ink drawings, and archival photos. It was printed by hand at the School of Visual Arts RisoLAB in New York City, in an edition of 144 copies. The cover was offset printed at Fireball Printing in Philadelphia, and the book as perfect-bound by New Hampshire Bindery in Bow, New Hampshire.
The book is available online from the Studio Kitses Shop for $45 USD plus postage, and ships within 3-5 business days via USPS.
How it was made
Plein air painting and stories
The heart of the project is my experience painting within Willets Point. I enjoy painting in cities and among people. The jumbled, busy, chaotic environment of Willets Point is a particularly exciting subject. Plein air painting is always a way to meet people, who will often approach and see what is being made. The reactions I’ve received from the people working in Willets Point have been especially supportive. People are happy to see their shops in the paintings, and willing to share stories about their businesses and their lives. Quotes from these stories are printed in the book, adding context to the images, and capturing a snapshot in time as this unique New York microcosm vanishes. Here are few of the stories I heard.
Raoul manages the shop his father worked in until he retired 11 years ago. He grew up working in the shop, and bought his first car there. He has been waiting for a long time to learn if the city would help relocate his business. Ultimately he was able on his own to find a new location for the shop in Rockaway, and expects to be move there by June 2024.
Discount Auto Repair
Tio came from Peru and opened his shop in one of the last standing buildings on Seaver Way, at the corner of what was once 38th Avenue. As of June 2023 he was hoping to keep operating in the space for another year. In August the city demolished the building. It had been located at the planned entrance of the future stadium.
Here are a few of the over 30 paintings I created in the streets of Willets Point. All were painted on 12×16 in. Arches 140lb. cold pressed watercolor blocks, using Schmincke, Sennelier, Holbein and Daniel Smith watercolors. I chose a regular format and stuck to it, knowing that I wanted a consistency to the presentation when printed.
Although the environment was noisy, dirty, and very busy, I was able to find spots where I could watch and paint for an hour or so at a time. I was always ready to abandon a painting and get out of the way, but people were very welcoming and stopped by to talk and watch me paint. With their consent I gathered their stories to print in the book.
Step 1: A plein air watercolor painting is created on the street in Willets Point.
Step 2: The painting is scanned, and the image separated into four plates for the four chosen risograph inks.
Step 3: The four plates are printed in succession on a risograph print duplicator.
Cover and binding
The cover of the book needed to be twice a wide as the book’s interior pages, so it could wrap around the front and back. Since risograph machines can only print as large as tabloid (11×17 in.) paper, I needed to find an offset printer to print the cover separately. Fireball Printing in Philadelphia did a great job, was easy to work with, and finished three days ahead of schedule. After receiving the covers, I delivered them and the collated pages to New Hampshire Bindery. Located in Bow, NH, they have both state of the art binding machines as well as old-fashioned tools. It’s a real vintage workshop with a down to earth approach, personal service and fair prices. Here are a few shots of their working space, a living museum of binding technology.
Giving back the book
Looking to the future
I went back to Willets Point in December 2023 after the book was finished. Ground had just been broken on Phase 1 of the area’s development, and tall cranes, earth movers, and construction fences were visible close to the remaining auto shops. I gave copies of “Last Days at the Iron Triangle” to several people who helped so much in its making, and had the chance to ask what plans they have for the future after Willets Point. Here are a few of those who let me paint their businesses and shared their stories with me.
Bernardo, aka Choko, found a new location nearby for his shop — 114 Roosevelt Ave. He expects to fully move there within the year. Until then, he’ll be at his current location in Willets Point, where he started working when he was 17.
Raoul’s new shop will be in Rockaway, a location he found without any municipal assistance. He’s planning to move by June, ending 22 years in Willets Point.
Latif of A&S Auto Body does not have plans yet for where he will move after the stadium is built. “The big fish eat the little fish,” he says, “and the big fish keeps getting bigger.”