Monica Aissa Martinez talks about her drawings of human figures, animals, and viruses during a studio visit in Phoenix, where she shares past inspirations and future projects.
Black silhouettes of bees and other creatures painted with stencils dot the sidewalk leading to Monica Aissa Martinez’s home in Phoenix, where she’s been making art for two decades in spaces others might have used for dining or watching television.
Her walls are filled with artworks from different periods of her creative journey, along with pieces by other artists, and an eclectic array of books and small decorative objects that give the space a cozy yet vibrant feel.
Inside the studio, where Martinez spends six or seven hours most days, she’s got an architect’s drawing table along a window overlooking a tree she’s particularly fond of, a tabletop where she often sets smaller pieces in progress, and another surface topped with paints, brushes, and other materials.
Drawings pegged to or set against a long wall hint at her current interests—making abstract works on black surfaces, depicting COVID-19 variants on mylar circles, and drawing anatomical structures with an uncharacteristic color palette as she wonders about ways energy moves into and out of the body.
“Some of my work is related to my study of yoga,” says Martinez. “I’m trying to understand how the body connects to the chakras.”
Since 2011, she has meticulously created a body of work she calls Nothing in Statis, which includes fifteen full-scale human studies and numerous smaller ones made with materials such as casein, graphite, gesso, gouache, ink, micaceous iron oxide, and Prismacolor.
Typically, she draws on collaged maps on Arches paper, using maps of areas that have specific connections to her subjects. After her brother died from the coronavirus, she drew his portrait on a map of El Paso, Texas, putting the neighborhood where they grew up where the heart sits.
The portrait is part of her exhibition Nothing in Stasis, which opened at the Tucson Museum of Art on September 1, 2022 and continues through April 23, 2023. It’s her third show with this title, but Martinez describes each as “a unique variation.”
In Tucson, she’s showing the first two full-scale figures she made: a portrait of her husband and a self-portrait. In addition, there’s a wall of new works on brain anatomy and histology, which were inspired by her father’s experience with Alzheimer’s. Her father died after contracting COVID-19, just three weeks after she lost her brother.
“My drawings are supposed to be narratives,” Martinez explains. “They’re keepers of information.” Martinez finished her father’s portrait in 2015 but went back in after his death to add imagery for the coronavirus. She’s updated the portrait of her mother, as well.
More narratives unfold in Martinez’s blog, where she’s been writing about her inspirations, materials, experiences, and more for over a decade. “My sketching and my writing take place at the same time,” she says.
As we talk, Martinez picks up a small work in progress and places it near the figs, grapes, and fresh lime water she’d set out for our studio visit. It’s a round study of a frog that’s destined for Unintended Consequences, a collaborative exhibition exploring the Sonoran Desert ecosystem scheduled to open on February 17, 2023, at the Center Space gallery inside Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.
Her drawing of a coyote hangs high on a nearby wall. “Every animal you see here is something that’s actually crossed my path,” she says. In this case, the creature showed up on her front lawn one day.
Moving forward, she’d like to draw a whole series of women from youth through aging. And she wants to be part of conversations happening about abortion, although she’s not sure what form that might take.
“It’s no coincidence that most of my subjects are women,” says Martinez. “I hope women who see my work will relate to it and have a greater sense of the authority they have over their own bodies.”