This Phoenix Artist Looks Inside—Literally—To Capture Her Subjects


woman painting at a table in a studio surrounded by artwork

Monica Aissa Martinez’s paintings—such as “Mapping a Living Organism / Human Cell – City of Phoenix” (left), her “Constellation” series (center) and “Self-Portrait – Body Female” ( right) explore the body’s inner workings.

In addition to the expected pigments, canvases and paintbrushes, the studio of Phoenix-based artist Monica Aissa Martinez is also chock-full of anatomy books and science journals—all overseen by a full-size skeleton. Martinez, who holds an MFA in drawing and printmaking, is more focused on what lies beneath the surface of the skin than what can be seen with the naked eye.

two small acupuncture models and three small wooden manikins

The artist keeps small models, anatomy books and science journals as references.

corner of a studio showing flat files, books, artwork, brushes and pencils

Martinez's studio is filled with a range of materials, as well as anatomy books, which are another source of inspiration.

group of petri dishes with drawings of various organisms

A fly drawing on a petri dish examines organisms within nature.

a women drawing the image of a coronavirus on a mylar

Martinez's pathogen studies, such as this drawing of a coronavirus done on mylar, capture what the forms would like under a microscope.

Three illustrations including one of DNA strands.

The artist also capture DNA strands as how they would look under a microscope.

Martinez’s current artistic journey was sparked during an intensive yoga program over a decade ago. Sketching anatomical forms in her notebook as her teacher described them, she turned the drawings into detailed studies that became the building blocks for her large-scale body portraits. “It was life changing to realize I could tell intricate stories about people by using their physiology as a jumping-off point,” she says. 

Her paintings are a kind of magical realist biography—a fusion of the literal, metaphorical and spiritual. Organs, muscles, nerves and connective tissue are depicted both within the body and floating outside of it. Chakra systems are underlaid on some compositions. And specific cells—from, say, the placenta or frontal cortex—are blown up and painted as they appear under a microscope, taking on the aspect of flowers or other organic forms. 

Whether working on canvas, paper, mylar or repurposed wood, Martinez first applies a backdrop of color with nontoxic casein—further refining her canvas works with an egg tempera—then outlining the figure with graphite. Next, she draws in the skeletal structure, organs and muscles. “By the time I’m done, you won’t see the sternum or backbone, but the skeleton is critical scaffolding,” Martinez says. And finally, she paints in layers of anatomical data, eventually filling up the entire surface. “The Victorians called it horror vacui: fear of empty spaces,” the artist explains. “Given my Latina heritage, I’m also mindful of Aztec art—the cave paintings and sundials—where every inch is covered.” 

Among Martinez’s early subjects were her parents, Elisa and Roberto. During the process, Martinez learned her mother had suffered a miscarriage, so she included seven fertilized eggs in her painting—one of which is set apart. Roberto was a psychologist who loved science, philosophy and history. “As he developed Alzheimer’s, I saw that bright intellect slowly fade,” the artist says, explaining her immersion in research at a brain bank that studies dementia. Martinez responded with a series of small-scale neurons and glia she calls “Constellation”—the name inspired by hearing a scientist compare brain cells to the Milky Way and being awed by the night sky during a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon.

Martinez approaches all of her paintings with fearless curiosity and profound empathy. “Starting at a cellular level, I want to use my art to describe a person in all their beautiful humanity,” she says. “And in the process, hopefully make something for all humankind.”