A Museum Blog
A Museum Blog
Image: Monica Aissa Martinez in the studio
Arizona artist Monica Aissa Martinez explores the wonders of the human body in finely detailed anatomical drawings and paintings that resonate for their narrative connections to family and friends. Martinez, a runner and yoga practitioner, expresses a holistic approach to the body, spirit, and mind in her art, informed by her studies of anatomy and physiology. By examining the structures of the body and the complex makeup of living organisms, she celebrates what she calls “the amazing thing called life.”
Martinez was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1962, to Elisa Arellano Martinez and Roberto Martinez. Roberto was adopted into the Martinez family, wealthy cattle ranchers who believed that the men in the family would be ranchers and the women got educated. But Roberto did not want to become a rancher, so he put himself through school by attending the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and taught in the public school system until 1972, when he received a master’s degree in guidance and counseling at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Soon after graduation, Roberto became a guidance counselor at the El Paso Public School District. Working at several schools in the district, her father was the liaison between families and the school, helping young students to manage their education. Roberto and Elisa had five daughters and one son. Proud of their Mexican American heritage and Catholic upbringing, both Roberto and Elisa were very supportive of women, ideas that integrated into the views of the Chicano movement on individual rights, and often Elisa wrote opinion articles about it in the 1960s and 1970s.
While Roberto went to school, majoring in education, Martinez’s mother took care of their six children with help from an extended family of a grandmother down the block and an uncle nearby. Roberto encouraged Elisa to also pursue her education, so she attended UTEP and got her bachelor’s degree in Speech Pathology and Audiology. Roberto often took care of the children while Elisa studied for her degree or worked in the evenings as a member of the group “Los Pobres Teator Español,” an El Paso-based Spanish language community theater, the first in the country. The family was close-knit and supportive. Family and education were priorities for Roberto, and Elisa provided the excitement and commitment to the theater. Upon graduation, Elisa became a speech and hearing clinician, while continuing her interest in the theater.
Martinez and her younger brother Roberto (Chacho) spent many hours over the years helping Elisa at the theater by passing out playbills, attending to the concession stand, and working as extras. According to Martinez, “Mom was always the leading lady. I remember she wore a miniskirt, even when she was pregnant—she was an extrovert.” Among the many plays in which she performed was Los Soles Truncos, La Tia de Carlos, and A Streetcar Named Desire. She won a Best Actress Award for her role in La Siempre Viva, and she went to Penn State University to perform in El Color de Nuestra Piel, which also traveled to Texas and Chihuahua, Mexico. Additionally, she received many awards for her work in the theater, and one of the highlights of Elisa’s career was performing in New York City. Later, Elisa wrote and contributed articles about her family and culture to Nosotros, a local El Paso magazine, and Hispanic Link news service magazine in Washington, D.C., as well as translated children’s books from English to Spanish for Macmillan Publishing Company, recording them in both languages. She also had a Sunday morning talk show called Nuestra Hora, for which she interviewed leading Hispanics in the community.
With such a learned and supportive family, Martinez became interested in art at an early age. Her sister Elisa, who is six-and-a-half years older, went to college and to art school, and eventually got her degree in art education. When Martinez was in grade school, Elisa gave her a set of pencils, paper, and other art materials. “I was ten-or-twelve years old, and the pencil set was all mine,” Martinez recalls. “I learned how to use that pencil set—that was the moment for me.” From the beginning, she drew her family. Her father had given her books on Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Renaissance master of anatomical studies, and she often drew portraits of her mother, admiring her beauty and her outgoing personality. By the time Martinez entered high school, she had developed skills both as an athlete—volleyball, basketball, and track—and artist, and she began to take art classes, joining the school’s art club. Enamored with her studies, she befriended her art teacher, who let her work in the art room during lunch hour. In 1979, she also worked in wheel-thrown ceramic pottery and met fellow student Eddie Duran, who also worked in clay, creating animal figures. While Martinez tried to get him to date her best friend in high school, preferring to focus on her art more than on dating, he nonetheless became smitten with Martinez, and years later he pursued her. Eventually, Duran and Martinez dated for eight years and married in 1991.
When Martinez entered UTEP, she majored in ceramics. She made abstract wall pieces in clay and mixed media, incorporating collected sticks and keys and making impressions in the soft clay. She also worked on traditional forms to supplement her income. Her interest in metalsmithing as her minor was in part inspired by taking classes with Rachelle Thiewes (b. 1952), a noted metals artist and professor whose work of pierced iron corsets and chastity belts made feminist statements about the constrictions of the female body. Another influential professor at UTEP was Kurt Kemp (b. 1957), a student of the legendary Argentinian printmaker Mauricio Lasansky (1914–2012), known as the “Father of American Printmaking.” Kemp received his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa and later became Lasansky’s studio assistant. Kemp’s own work focused on family, religion, politics, and culture, and he was particularly inspired by 18th century African bronze heads from the Benin culture. A Midwesterner by birth, once in the Southwest, Kemp became influenced by his new surroundings. As Martinez recalls, “He became interested in retablos and the grittiness of the desert. Kurt got me to see things with different eyes.” He also taught Martinez many of the foundations of drawing and printmaking. Martinez fell in love with paper and ink while working with Kemp, who allowed her to go in early to the printmaking studio and stay as late as she wished. During her time at UTEP, she participated in more than eight exhibitions in El Paso, which allowed her to learn more about the presentation of her art and to obtain valuable feedback from viewers.
After Martinez graduated from UTEP in 1986, Kemp suggested she go to the New Mexico State University in Las Cruces (NMSU) for her Master of Fine Arts degree. Three years later, she followed his advice, knowing that Spencer Fiddler (b. 1944), another printmaker who studied under Lasansky, was teaching there. Fiddler focused his work on figurative action in battle scenes and mark making. While Kemp exposed her to the sense of freedom that paper allowed, Fiddler instilled a sense of structure that labor-intensive printmaking demands. During her graduate years, Martinez was inspired by Lasansky, whose collaged life-size figures she long admired. During that time, she created organic, biologically influenced forms, appearing to be growing out of the ground like blossoming lotus flowers.
Image: Monica Aissa Martinez, Untitled, 1991, Graphite and Conté crayon on Japanese paper
Inspiration for Martinez’s art did not only come from her instructors but also from life experiences that profoundly affected her. In her mid-twenties, she embarked on a road trip to Mexico with her family, hoping to reach Mexico City as their destination. On their way, they stopped in small villages, churches, and marketplaces where she saw large Día de los Muertos puppets and skeletons, and other folk art. The scale of large figures terrified and intimidated her, but they also stayed with her imagination. Although Martinez suffered a severe attack of amoebas that curtailed the family trip, they reached as far as Zacatecas, where visiting a beautiful church she stumbled upon a long dark-paneled storage room filled with statues of saints on pedestals, yet another experience that made a great impression on her. Martinez grew up Catholic and lived next to a church, so the scene in Zacatecas was both intriguing and frightening, and she absorbed that mixed reaction in her later work.
During her time at NMSU, her advisor was Joshua Rose (b. 1948), a Yale graduate who painted exuberant, colorful abstractions. Martinez took a Methods and Materials course with Rose, in which she learned the technique of egg tempera as well as how to work with pastels, color pencils, and casein. Rose was the catalyst for her love of materials and color that she retains today. Perhaps due to Rose’s influence, Martinez gradually shifted to the immediacy of drawing directly on paper rather than continuing with the structured labor of printmaking. She liked the freedom that graduate school allowed her and the ability to work with both undergraduates and graduates in shared experiences of experimentation and discovery. Every new technique and exposure to mediums inspired growth and a stronger sense of her vision. In 1989, she became a graduate teaching assistant and participated in From the Center exhibition at the Corbett Center Gallery at NMSU. Her final year of graduate work was a productive time. She presented her graduate thesis work in Metaphorical Journey and participated in Latina and Native American Women’s Exhibition at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and Locust Gallery in San Antonio, Texas.
Image: Bailey Doogan, RIB (Angry Aging Bitch), 1989, Charcoal, aluminum dust, dry pigment, collage on primed paper
Another important influence on Martinez’s artistic development was Bailey Doogan (1941–2022), a University of Arizona painting professor who had come to NMSU as a visiting artist for a week. Reflecting on that experience, Martinez declares:
I remember that she was an intelligent and approachable educator. I was very curious, and she was eager to talk about her work—it made a big impression on me. Her pieces were raw and just tacked up onto the wall with no framing. I thought, ‘I can do this maybe one day.’ She did powerful work—it was the first time I had seen images of females with no self-consciousness—it was very honest—the anger is in the work. Doogan had a recent piece called Angry Aging Bitch (1989) [also known as RIB (Angry Aging Bitch)—three figures of herself in black charcoal. It inspired me to work in large scale. It was intimidating and awesome at the same time.
Martinez was intrigued by the larger scale of Doogan’s work, but she also became influenced by her use of intricate lines to create detailed images of the female body. Still, it would not be for another ten years before she acted on both the scale and the intricacy that Doogan inspired in her.
Nearing graduation in May of 1991, Martinez was offered the chance to teach at NMSU to replace Fiddler, who was scheduled to take a sabbatical. But her father, a family man and traditionalist, discouraged her from living away from Duran. The sentiment was shared by her mother, so she declined the chance to stay in Las Cruces and happily stayed with Duran, who was headed for Arizona. The two were married by the end of the year and a new chapter in their lives began. They came to Arizona in 1992 so Duran could attend the DeVry University to study electrical engineering. They meant to stay only a couple of years and return to New Mexico. But once Duran got a job, Martinez was able to focus on her art fulltime and they decided to stay in Phoenix.
Even though Martinez had great instructors during her college years, like many emerging artists, she suffered from a lack of confidence, so she concentrated on making art while keeping to herself without aggressively pursuing exhibition opportunities. She experimented with different media and used materials she had previously felt too intimidated to try. Her background in metalsmithing, ceramics, and printmaking—all slow, deliberate, and methodical processes—offered the spontaneity of painting as a new challenge. And while she continued to experiment with new materials and processes, in 1992, she took a job as printmaker with the Phoenix Art Group while Duran attended school. There, in the gritty environment of downtown Phoenix, she learned about the business of art and met a community of artists who were working there. She also sought out and continued to receive invitations to exhibit her art. She was included in both the National Drawing Competition at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where she received a purchase award, and the Seventeenth Annual National Invitational Drawing Exhibition at Emporia State University in Kansas.
After two years, when Duran graduated and obtained his first job, Martinez left her position at the Phoenix Art Group, feeling that she had experienced all she needed to move on. While she sought new opportunities, she immersed herself in her own art and the art of Latin American women artists she saw on trips to the Phoenix Art Museum, where she visited daily for a full year, discovering the works of Leonora Carrington (1917–2011), Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), Remedios Varo (1908–1963), and others. She also frequented Arizona State University (ASU) Art Museum in Tempe, directed by Marilyn Zeitlin, who was known for her ambitious exhibitions and interest in Latinx art. Deepening her connections to the city, she learned from her mailman about a collective called Movimiento del Rio Salado (MARS) and submitted her work for La Phoeniquera XV, Juried Art Exhibition in Phoenix. Her first foray into egg tempera painting, The Bride and Groom (1995), a colorful surrealist composition, was selected for the exhibition by Arizona State University Art Museum Associate Curator of Latin American art, Linda McAllister.
McAllister soon paid a studio visit and invited Martinez to exhibit in Here and Now: Arizona Contemporary Artists at ASU Art Museum in Tempe in the fall of 1995. McAllister had worked with Zeitlin on the museum’s groundbreaking exhibition of Cuban art and was a popular curator in the area. For this exhibition, Martinez once again presented The Bride and Groom (1995) and small egg tempera paintings, including a maiden, mother, and crone image inspired by her interest in female mythology and the ancient stone figure Venus of Willendorf (24,000–22,000 B.C.E.). The compositions incorporated fertile, rounded forms, filled with references to anatomy—ovaries, breasts, and brains.
Image: Monica Aissa Martinez, The Bride and Groom, 1995, Egg Tempera on paper
Through McAllister, Martinez became exposed to basic museum practices and several artists in the expanding Phoenix art scene as well as many Cuban artists connected to the university and Indigenous artists affiliated with the Heard Museum. McAllister also got Martinez her first art review. While the reviewer was uncomplimentary towards her work, she was paired in criticism with a popular Tucson artist, Andy Polk (b. 1950), who was a professor at the University of Arizona. Soon after, Graythorne Gallery in Scottsdale offered to represent her. Anne Nicholson, the gallery owner, wisely told her to ignore the criticism and to focus on her artistic aims. The experience taught her to be resilient and aim for excellence. Overall, it was a heady and progressive time for Latinx art in the Phoenix area and Martinez became a part of the movement. However, she saw herself not as a Latinx or Chicana artist but simply a female artist, because her work was about female mythology and the feminine. Still, she felt a deep connection to her Mexican heritage by her close ties to family and the community.
In 1996, Martinez began to study yoga with the intention of understanding the body better and to improve her independent work in practice. While she continued long distance running, yoga focused on centering oneself in the body and then expanding those principals and philosophies into everyday life, a concept that became a big influence on her art and outlook on life. During this time, Martinez also took Mexican art history and web design and other digital classes at Phoenix College to build a website. She also studied anatomy, meshing her interest in the body and movement with her art practice. Through this experience, she learned about the body and eventually began to create images of floating organs. Over the next two years, she exhibited at Graythorne Gallery and Gallery 10 in Scottsdale, and in group shows in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and Connecticut.
By this time, Martinez was building an impressive following and exhibition record and was considered an established artist in the Phoenix area. In 1998, she was given her first solo exhibition, élan vital (a phrase coined by late 19th-early 20th century philosopher Henri Bergson about the concept of the vital force or impulse of life) at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts in its “New Dimensions” gallery featuring Arizona artists. Her exhibition included a new series of “Queens” images, a continuation of her rounded female forms influenced by reading The Mists of Avalon, a historical fantasy novel by American writer Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Image: Monica Aissa Martinez, Queen of Cups, 1998, Casein and Egg Tempera
One such image is Queen of Cups (1998), an imaginative and colorful casein and egg tempera composition that brings biomorphic and alchemical references together in a figure that suggests a tree of life. She also introduced mother and child pairings and anatomy studies—images composed of the breast, brain, and clavicle. The night of her opening was fortuitous timing—noted Arizona artist Fritz Scholder (1937–2005) was also showing at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts and there to deliver a talk—she was to follow with a talk of her own. With a packed audience to see both shows, she sold a record eleven works that night and met many more people involved in the arts.
The success of her Scottsdale Center for the Arts exhibition opened many doors for Martinez. For instance, Gary Keller, Director of the Hispanic Research Center at ASU, published three books that included her art and commissioned her to create a limited-edition lithograph with Tempe-based Segura publishing. This commission became an opportunity to explore Chicano art and to meet an even larger community of artists. While she maintained a distance from being exclusively identified as a Chicana artist, she is proud to be Latina and holds a special affinity for Mexican folk art, which she grew up with, and Catholicism, which exposed her to icons that have greatly impacted her work. To Martinez, her Latin American influences are now refined and contextualized into a medical realm. And in contrast to common Latinx themes, such as Día de los Muertos, her work is not about death, but about life—she may start her skeleton, but it is used in a different context than such traditions.
Over the next ten years, Martinez continued to exhibit her work in group exhibitions at institutions and galleries throughout the western states and to refine her ideas. From 2001 until 2009, she served as a teaching artist for the Arizona Commission on the Art’s Artist Roster and in 2006 she joined the faculty of Phoenix College. Continuing her anatomical studies, she was included in the Arizona Biennial ’09 at the Tucson Museum of Art, which expanded her visibility throughout the state. For her work in the biennial, she exhibited Vital Commotion #2 (2009), a mixed media canvas that showed a marked increase in the size of her works in a cacophonous composition of floating internal organs, alive with a sense of life force and energy.
Image: Monica Aissa Martinez, Vital Commotion #2, 2009, Mixed Media on Canvas, 35″ x 45″
After a few years, while Martinez was getting noticed for her biomorphic abstractions, her research of medical journals and continuing interest in yoga and the body enticed her to work with the full body. She had seen the work of El Paso artist Gaspar Enriquez (b. 1942), a fellow graduate of UTEP and NMSU who was creating works that address his Latinx heritage, inspired by the teenagers he taught at Bowie High School in south El Paso. Enriquez worked with Martinez’s mother there and was part of the community, so his portraits came from a place of deep understanding. Martinez saw in such works a level of presence that large-scale works can achieve. Inspired by Enriquez, she attempted her first full figures in large scale, and she also began to work in graphite and Prismacolor pencil, media she was familiar with but had not yet fully explored. Her first life-size portrait was of her husband Eddie, followed by a self-portrait. As Martinez humorously recalls, “I asked Eddie, ‘Will you pose for me? Let me photograph you?’ I wanted to capture him clothed with a cigarette in his hand—kind of edgy. I told him to go to my studio and he came out and he’s naked! I thought, I have a new model!” Although she still had trepidation about working that large and concerned about how the public would react, she pushed through, hoping to make him look tough by focusing on his clothes.
Image: Monica Aissa Martinez, Body Male—A Portrait of Eddie, from the series “Nothing in Stasis,” 2011, Casein, gesso, graphite, micaceous iron oxide on prepared Arches paper
But with Eddie standing before her, naked and in a vulnerable state, Martinez realized that the bigger challenge was how to address the human body itself. She contemplated articulating the exterior of the body, including skin and hair, but she decided to focus on the interior of the body instead. In addition to the photographs of her subject, she also outlined his body to make it exactly life-size. Having been married to Eddie for so long, she knew his body well—his bone structure, rib cage, heart, muscles, cartilage, eyeballs. As Martinez explains:
Eddie has a large barrel chest, and he even breathes different than how I breathe. I started to consider the mental and physiological differences between men and women. I started to examine medical illustration books to better understand those differences. In general, I lay out my compositions from the top of the paper to the bottom. In this case, I created a much more complex examination of the body. I placed a large brain that hovers over his figure and then I started to draw him while filling all the areas of the paper, including the pelvis and organs and other body parts, like the layers of brickwork, section by section. I no longer think of surfaces but what’s beneath the surface.
No longer is the figure a contained vessel with all the elements residing within it, like a portrait. Rather, Martinez examines various elements of the body as equally important parts of a whole. By isolating such organs and skeletal structures, the composition is no longer about Eddie per se, but about life in general.
To Martinez, this new portrait aligned with her interest in the physical body and what she called “the subtle body”—the spirit within us all. She is fascinated by the systems and processes of life and how it all changes when we exit life. Although examining the anatomy of the human body was a new artistic direction for her, she had long held an interest in muscle structures and other physiological details. She also was keenly aware of the realm of the spirit and the mind—her father’s best friends were a doctor and a priest, and her father was a psychologist. For Martinez, the best way to articulate the merging of the physical and the spiritual was to examine them though visual patterns of connection. After Martinez completed the full figure of Eddie in 2011, she created a similar formatted self-portrait as well as another anatomical image of a teenage member of her family, a body at the height of health and puberty.
Martinez also has a growing interest in the animal world as seen through keen observation. Her earlier animal studies include an imaginary jackalope, in addition to cats, armadillos, birds, coyotes, jaguars, rats, and toads, often painted onto collaged maps that place them in the region where she encountered them. Ultimately, she embarked on a longstanding series of insects. Every summer, she sets up her studio to create fun, lighthearted, and quickly executed works compared to the months-long time that the larger works entail. The summer of 2013 became what she refers to as “My Summer as an Entomologist,” a time when friends and patrons sent her insects. She also found bees, flies, a Hercules Beetle, a Hawkmoth, Palo Verde Beetle, Paper Wasp, Tarantula Wasp, and others to examine and draw. While she initially had a fear of insects, over time, she began to understand them by looking at them through a magnifying glass and drawing her subjects. To Martinez, these works are exercises in careful, steady observation and remind one about the value of all life. She declares, “It connects us in a very basic way as we are all beautiful and complex systems.”
In 2013, Martinez’s art became nationally recognized when Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, began to visit studios around the country for their national exhibition, State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now (2014). Her work was chosen from a large pool of artists from Arizona, and they purchased two of her larger-than-life-size torso drawings, so it was an honor to be selected by their distinguished curators.
Image: Monica Aissa Martinez, Male Torso—Anterior View, 2012-2013,Casein, gesso, graphite, egg tempera, micaceous iron oxide on canvas, Collection of Crystal Bridges Museum
As Martinez recalls, “Male Torso-Anterior View [2012–2013] was chosen for the exhibition. I met Alice Walton [Crystal Bridges founder and advisor] when she was standing in front of my work. She told me that she wanted the piece, and I quickly told her that it was partnered with another work [Female Torso-Anterior View] not in the exhibit. When they approached me about the purchase, it was for both works! They now regularly exhibit them. I’m glad they stayed together.” Martinez was suddenly thrust into the limelight and an exponentially larger audience—it was both an exciting and anxious time as her private life in the arts was now to become public. Her work in the exhibition was reviewed in the New York Times, and soon, curators sought her out and gallerists, collectors, and the public contacted her or flew to Phoenix just to see her work and meet her. It was the first time Martinez realized how much of an impact her work could have on people and the responsibility an artist has in such situations.
An introvert by nature, Martinez now had the confidence to assert her voice and move forward with her ideas knowing that it was accepted by a wide audience. For example, in 2015, Peter Held, then curator at the ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center, selected her work for Between Earth and Sky: Contemporary Art From the American Southwest, touring to three universities in China. In 2016, Crystal Bridges’s State of the Art exhibition traveled to the Jepson Center, Telfair Museums, in Savannah, Georgia, and a year later to the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee; the Frist Museum in Nashville, Tennessee; and the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. Also in 2016, her work was included in Drawing With Everything at the Phoenix Airport Museum at Sky Harbor International Airport. Several doctors saw the exhibition and reached out to her. For example, Dr. Joe Alcock, an emergency physician and Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, who focuses on the microbiome as it relates to obesity, sought her out, and told her about his teaching blog. Asking to use an image of one of her works, Portrait of Sara, Head in Profile, Arms Akimbo (2015–2017) he also introduced her to evolution medicine and science podcasts, which gave her new sources for her work.
Image: Monica Aissa Martinez, Portrait of Sara, Head in Profile, Arms Akimbo, 2017. Casein, gesso, gouache, graphite, micaceous iron oxide, Prismacolor pencil on Arches paper
Also in 2016, she created a solo exhibition, Cella, organized by the Phoenix Institute of Contemporary Art (PhICA), who placed repurposed shipping containers on Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix for monthly exhibitions. For this exhibition, she utilized the full container space and started to work with two-sided drawings on Mylar to accommodate the narrow space of the container.
Fully immersed in examining the human body, in 2017, Martinez utilized her knowledge to create a full-figure portrait of her father. Roberto had been a strong man who swam every day, but recently, he had fallen a couple of times. As she drew his muscles, fat, bone structure, brain, and other internal organs, she also addressed his changing body, trying to find a way to articulate his weakening legs. Eventually he received a diagnosis at 82 years old—he had Alzheimer’s.
Image: Monica Aissa Martinez, Portrait of Sophie, Trisomy 21 Study, 2017 Casein, gesso, gouache, graphite, micaceous iron oxide, Prismacolor on Arches paper
After the Crystal Bridges exhibition completed its tour, Martinez’s works became more focused on the intersection of science, medicine, and art. In 2018, Michelle Dock, Director of the Tempe Arts Center, selected her for a summer-long residency at the center. This experience enabled her to work on an expanded level of awareness and concentration on her new ideas. She was also able to get the technical assistance she needed, including a rare opportunity to visit the Banner Sun Health Research Institute Brain and Tissue Bank in Sun City, Arizona. The brain and neuronal constellations had become a primary focus for Martinez because her father’s illness, and she became fascinated by the aesthetics of healthy and diseased brains. Still, she was reminded that the inspiration for her study was her father, with a personal history and emotional connection to her, not an anonymous entity. The scientists there were very accommodating and showed her the facility, including a human brain and heart only hours since the time they were removed from the body.
During the residency, Martinez worked from a studio on-site, where she met people from all over the world, including scientists and other researchers. For example, one visitor told her that his job was to examine the structure of an aluminum can, insinuating a connection between aluminum and Alzheimer’s. In 2018, she also reconnected with Dr. Joe Alcock, who came to see her exhibition Nothing in Stasis at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and used her images for the International Society of Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health in Utah. Sharing her work with Dr. Alcock and learning about others’ research enhanced her respect for scientists working in this field, expanded her understanding of the interconnectedness of art and science, and directly informs her current work. “Leonardo da Vinci is one of my biggest influences,” explains Martinez. “I never imagined in my wildest dreams to become engaged with the medical profession. I played doctor as a child with a toy medical kit and studied basic anatomy and dissection in high school, but never thought to become a doctor. For me, Joe [Alcock] opened another portal to work with people through a scientific aspect. It has been a wonderful experience to connect with a greater world.”
Image: Monica Aissa Martinez, Portrait of Chacho—Peace Out Brother, 2020, Casein, gesso, gouache, graphite, micaceous iron oxide, Prismacolor pencil, collaged map on BFK Rag paper
Soon after the COVID pandemic changed the world, in 2020, Martinez sought new projects during isolation. Her brother Chacho had just passed away from the virus, so new work would keep her busy and distracted. Dr. Maria Adelaida Duque, a scientist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge University, invited her to work with a team of six scientists from Germany, Spain, England, and France on a public engagement project about neglected tropical diseases. They spoke via Zoom to learn more about the pathogens they were each studying, and Martinez created artwork and created blog posts based on their research. Through her lengthy interviews and discussions, not only did she learn a lot about their research, but she also found that scientists can be great admirers of the fine arts. The result of their communications resulted in a new powerful body of work, “Parasites: Alarming and Beautiful,” a series of seventeen circular paintings, exhibited in a recent version of Nothing in Stasis, at Arizona’s Mesa Arts Center. Martinez also contacted Dr. Alcock to see if she could use his research to do a new drawing. He agreed, but only if she focused on obesity, new ground for Martinez. She researched the topic and got to know it deeply enough to express it through her art. Finished in 2021 during the COVID shutdown, the result of their discussions was Portrait of Veronica—Who’s in Control? (2021).
Image: Monica Aissa Martinez, Portrait of Veronica, Who’s in Control, 2021, Casein, graphite, gesso, gouache, ink, micaceous iron oxide, Prismacolor pencil on canvas, collaged map on Arches paper
Alcock later showed images of her work at a workshop in 2022 for medical students at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Through the many new connections Martinez has found with the sciences, each semester she now teaches a visual arts one-day workshop to the Gross Anatomy class at the School of Medicine, University of Arizona/Phoenix campus.
Tandem to Martinez’s decade-long focus on the intricacies of the body and other life forms is an interest in the structures of human presence in the form of maps. Just as the body has pathways and systems that service life functions, so too do roads and streets serve the greater body of a town or city by providing conduits of movement. She finds them equally fascinating because they tell the story of a collective of human life—organized yet chaotic, functioning yet fallible, and aesthetically compelling. Her grandfather collected maps, and that passion piqued the artist’s interest. In them, she found commonalities between the diagrammatic rendering of complex biological systems and civic systems of order.
Image: Monica Aissa Martinez, City of Tucson – You Look Like a Neuron to Me, 2022, Casein, Gesso, Micaceous Iron Oxide, Pigma Brush Archival Ink, Map Collage on Canvas
For example, City of Tucson—You Look Like A Neuron to Me (2022) appears like a view from an airplane at night with the glittering lights of the city emerging from the outer regions of the city and highlighted in the center with colorful grids and organic shapes that seem at once to be topographic and cellular. Landmarks in nature share a compatible space with structures of civilization, harmonious in their systems of function. To Martinez, the similarities between the body and the city are palpable, and she expresses it with a celebration of co-existence, and order versus disorder.
Martinez delves into her subjects with patient concentration, not only in the time and effort she puts into learning about bodily systems but also the people she portrays—their life stories told through their bodies, what is under the skin. She reaches with reverence into their histories—these are real people, not demonic characters of skeletons and body parts. Her aim is to preserve their lives and bodies through art to honor them, depicted as alive and well, while at the same time, revealing their innermost parts. While other such works using anatomical references might come across as visually invasive, Martinez’s work is not voyeuristic or threatening, it is approachable. They are amazing drawings that are products of her curiosity and love of science and nature; they are celebratory. The artist’s process of execution is also lengthy and methodical. Each work can take up to a year or more to complete, from the initial research to the first layer of anatomical drawing to the intricate and fanciful elements she layers on top, much like the rich layers of skeleton, muscle, organs, and circulatory system. As she works, the composition changes, punctuated by cell structures and other embellishments that connect the muscles and nerve and blood systems in aesthetically compelling compositions. at once jarringly real and abstracted. The sense of energy in her intricate lines enlivens the compositions.
With a sense of wonder and reverence, Martinez approaches her art holistically, examining the mind, body, and spirit from the microcellular to the cosmic. Her interest in science is metaphysical and her impetus is the understanding of the energy of the body—how it moves and how it is directed. As Martinez reveals, “And in order for me to really understand something, I have to draw it.” And draw she does, in richly beautiful line, color, and form, expressing the complexity of the world around her.
Monica Aissa Martinez, phone interview by Julie Sasse, July 5, 2022. The majority of this essay is derived from this interview unless otherwise noted.
Monica Aissa Martinez, phone interview by Julie Sasse, July 5, 2022.
The author was a fellow student of Rachel Thiewes in the early 1970s at Southern Illinois University where she obtained her bachelors degree.
Martinez visited Mexico with her family as a young girl of five years old and she suffered a similar illness which also stayed in her memory and perhaps influenced her later interest in the microscopic aspects of the body. Her illness was so severe, she was hospitalized upon her return to the United States. Monica Aissa Martinez, email correspondence with author, July 12, 2022.
Monica Aissa Martinez, phone interview by Julie Sasse, July 5, 2022. Doogan’s drawing, Angry White Bitch was created as a response to a male student’s assessment of her because of the assertive, feminist nature of her work.
Monica Aissa Martinez, phone interview by Julie Sasse, July 5, 2022.
Monica Aissa Martinez, phone interview by Julie Sasse, August 11, 2022.
Monica Aissa Martinez, email correspondence with author, August 9, 2022.
Monica Aissa Martinez, email correspondence with author, August 5, 2022.
Phoenix Institute of Contemporary Art (phICA) was founded in 2007 by Ted Decker, Greg Esser, and Eddie Shea. The first project was launched in 2011. The non-profit organization uses a collaborative approach to support contemporary artists by presenting exhibitions, facilitating residencies, providing financial support, and encouraging cultural exchanges between artists. For more information about phICA, see https://www.phica.org.
 Banner Sun Health Research Institute Brain and Tissue Bank in Sun City is a program committed to the study of normal and diseased brain using volunteers and donors from the Phoenix metropolitan area. Since 1987, more than 3,000 community members have participated in the study of functions during life and organs after death. It currently holds more than 2,000 brains, including normal conditions and Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cerebrovascular, and other neurodegenerative diseases. For more on Banner Sun Health Research Institute Brain and Tissue Bank, see https://bannerhealth.com.
Monica Aissa Martinez, phone interview by Julie Sasse, July 5, 2022.
Monica Aissa Martinez, phone interview by Julie Sasse, July 5, 2022.
Monica Aissa Martinez, “State of the Art: Discovering Art Now,” https://stateoftheart.crystalbridges.org/.