Phoenix Artist Captures Historic Homes and Iconic Phoenix Locations in Cheerful Drawings
Seeing Phoenix landmarks through the eyes of up-and-coming artist Aileen Martinez
Armed with an iced coffee, Aileen Martinez settles in to work remotely at a coffee bar in Tempe, one of several spots in metro Phoenix where she goes to focus on a specific project. “I can’t work from home,” says Martinez, a Phoenix native. “It’s too distracting. Plus, when I’m in a coffee shop or restaurant, a lot of times, people will come up and ask me what I’m working on.”
What she’s working on are loving portraits of local buildings and private homes, each executed in her signature whimsical, colorful style—art that she sells online, in pop-up markets or via private commissions. For the past two years, this has been her full-time gig and a dream come true to earn a living as an artist.
After graduating from a small, private high school, Martinez, now 28, studied art therapy at Southern Adventist University in Tennessee, where an art professor made students carry around sketchbooks and commit to drawing five or six hours a week. “It’s something I’ve been doing now for years,” she says. “I’m never without a sketchbook.”
Returning to Arizona, she found work not in art therapy, but in education, spending time as a teacher’s aide and an art instructor in schools around town and in Holbrook. “I learned that education was not really for me,” she explains, “and that what I really wanted to do was draw.” With the pandemic hitting the pause button on in-school learning, Martinez went out on a limb and began drawing sketches to pass the time.
With no real background in architecture, she was drawn to capturing buildings that had character. “I can’t explain why I like buildings so much,” she says, “but I don’t really do people, or landscapes or pets.”
At first, she would choose a building, settle down on a wooden chair and spend eight or nine hours capturing its essence, using multimedia paper, outlining the form in ink, then adding hues with watercolors, markers and gouache. “I was a little bit insane at first, not drinking water or eating so I could keep going,” she remembers. “When I was doing my own house, one of my neighbors came out and asked me if I was OK. Another time, when I was doing the Westward Ho building on Central Avenue, I sat half in the sun and half in the shade. My left leg was totally sunburned.”
Nowadays, she’s easier on herself, taking a picture of her subjects, then working on them in the comfort of an air-conditioned space. To date, she’s captured the likes of the Rosson House at Heritage Square, music venues such as The Van Buren and Crescent Ballroom, views of Grand Avenue and the downtown Pizzeria Bianco locale. “I sold the original to Chris Bianco,” Martinez says. “I always ask the building’s owners if they want to buy an original or a print.”
The commission work is coming in at a faster clip, too, some from commercial building owners and some from private homeowners. “I don’t do a realistic image of a building,” she says. “It’s not 100% accurate and the lines are not perfect. There’s a human touch, and it’s my interpretation of the structure.”
David Hohman found Martinez through Copper Star Coffee’s Instagram site. She had drawn the Phoenix coffee shop’s vintage building, and David contacted her to commission a drawing of an ice cream shop in Tucson where he and his wife, Jennifer, had first met. “When we bought our house in North Phoenix, I asked Aileen to draw it, too,” David says. “I liked that her style wasn’t realistic.”
Patricia Roth also commissioned Martinez to capture her condo building, Regency on Central in Phoenix. “My husband and I encountered Aileen at a street fair and asked her to do our building from a certain angle so our unit would be visible,” Patricia recalls. “She sat outside by the light rail and worked on it right away. We liked the art because it’s playful and accurate without being boring.”
Recently, Martinez participated in an artist residency at ASU’s art museum, during which she explored the Tempe campus and its surroundings. “I’m trying to get out to different parts of the Valley and even different cities,” she says. “Last summer, I did an art camp for kids in Chicago and made drawings of Wrigley Field and The Bean.”
In the meantime, she’s focused on capturing older buildings, researching their past before enshrining them in her art. “There are so many places here that we just pass by and don’t think about. I think it’s important to capture the history.”
Look.See.Draw, Phoenix, lookseedraw.com