Portraits of Home

Artist Aileen Martinez captures images of familiar places in Phoenix and beyond.

By Nora Burba Trulsson

Photograph of Aileen Martinez by Jeff Caine

On a recent weekday morning, Aileen Martinez has settled in a window seat at WeBe Coffee in north Phoenix, armed with a large iced espresso and several sketchbooks. She’s wearing a pair of bronze-colored, dangling earrings in the shape of chairs, and one arm sports a tattoo she picked up on a recent trip to New York—a young woman (ostensibly, her), holding a paint palette and drawing an image of a house that’s also a sketchbook. The coffeeshop tableau depicts Martinez as her true self—she’s an artist who draws portraits of homes, familiar local buildings and cityscapes, something she’s been doing full-time for the past several years. “I do fun, whimsical images of buildings,” explains Martinez. “They are not to scale and not ‘correct’ perspective. There’s a human touch to my art, and it’s my interpretation of what I see.”

Martinez, 30, is a Phoenix native who was drawn to drawing, so to speak, since childhood. She studied art therapy at Southern Adventist University in Tennessee, where an art professor challenged her to always carry a sketchbook and draw a certain number of hours a week, a habit she kept up after finishing school. Returning to Phoenix, she worked in education but inched towards an art career by drawing buildings around town. “At first, I would just sit across the street from something and draw for eight hours a day,” she remembers. “I don’t know how I did it—I’d get sunburned on half of my body and forget to eat.” Her subjects were buildings, rather than people, and she captured old homes, coffee shops and other businesses. Martinez began selling her work at art fairs around the Valley and launched a website to sell her art, lookseedraw.com. Her art business took off, and she left her day job to pursue the art. “I’m learning about architecture as I go,” Martinez admits, “but I like drawing places that have historical value, places that I enjoy visiting. I want to capture spaces and buildings as they are, before they’re changed by remodeling or redevelopment.”

Using mostly ink and watercolors, she’s captured Valley landmarks like Tovrea Castle, ASU’s Old Main and downtown’s Westward Ho building. The homes of the historic Willo and Encanto neighborhoods near downtown Phoenix are favorites, as are downtown Phoenix music venues like The Van Buren and Crescent Ballroom. Modern architecture is also part of her oeuvre—Martinez has captured Frank Lloyd Wright’s Gammage Center, Antoine Predock’s art museum and artist James Turrell’s Skyspace—“Air Apparent”—all at ASU. Additionally, Martinez accepts private commissions, often for homeowners look to capture a first home or a nostalgic childhood abode.

Her work has garnered attention outside of the art fairs and her website. in 2022, she was invited to be an artist in residence at the ASU art museum and her work was exhibited at the Phoenix Children’s Museum as part of Hispanic Heritage Month. Martinez’s drawing of the Phoenix Art Museum has landed on prints, postcards and mugs being sold in the museum’s gift shop, and she’s recently worked on a coloring book for the Tucson Museum of Art in honor of its centennial. For the past several summers, she has taught art in Chicago for a children’s summer camp program, during which time Martinez captured Windy City landmarks like The Art Institute of Chicago, Wrigley Field, the Chicago Theatre, the “Bean” sculpture and, for aficionados of Hulu’s “The Bear,” the original Mr. Beef building near the Loop. With a drawing trip to Japan and the possibility of a Phoenix coloring book and calendar on the horizon, Martinez has even more on her plate. In the meantime, she sets up “shop” at a favorite coffee shop, where she likes to work and share her projects with anyone who asks. “Being in a coffee shop is like going to my office or studio,” she explains. “I can’t work at home—too many distractions.” And does she still sit outside for hours capturing the nuances of a home or building? “I got smart when I turned 30,” Martinez laughs. “I take a photo and go to a coffee shop with air conditioning and a bathroom.”