Best of Phoenix

Cactus Queen

Sculptor Melissa Martinez, 29, combines materials like cactus needles and concrete into stark, elegiac pieces about the natural world vanishing beneath the pavement of our eternally expanding city. The Chicago native came to the Valley a dozen years ago to get a degree in sculpture from Arizona State University. She fell hard for the desert and never went back. By day, Martinez wields crowbars and paintbrushes in her job as an exhibit designer for the Heard Museum. At night, she makes art at a studio behind her 1950s Tempe ranch house. You can see Martinez's work at 515, a gallery on Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix.

Why she digs the desert: I was always a beach bum in Chicago. I'd go to Lake Michigan, play on the beach, lay on the beach, play Frisbee on the beach. So I love living here. Once I got past the blazing heat, and I realized you just go to the pool when it's hot, then it became like the beach.

The nature of your nurture: The landscape you grow up in the first six years of your life is the one you will always most feel comfortable with. I love the desert, but there's something always kind of forced about it. Sometimes I still really crave water, and squishy green grass and big maple trees and oak trees.

Cactus hugger: I wouldn't call myself an environmentalist, but I've always been sensitive to nature. It comes from my mom. We always had horses and a garden, and I loved that. Here, nature is getting destroyed really, really fast, and it pisses me off. I don't know why this city hasn't put some kind of restrictions on building. At some point, the sprawl has to stop. We have to stop moving outward and destroying land. Arizona is lucky it has so much unspoiled wilderness. It's just sad that people have no respect for it at all.

Stop and smell the acacia needles: From a distance, everything in the desert is beautiful, but you get close and it's crusty and icky. All the plants are covered in thorns and all the critters have spiny coatings. But look even deeper, and it's beautiful again. Each little thorn on an acacia is so perfect and white and straight. They have these tiny gray tips right at the end. Their beauty is hidden. I would love to get people to slow down and think about the world a little bit.

Hurts so good: Once I used some thorns [in a piece of artwork] that had poison in them. I didn't realize it, and I worked with them for a whole afternoon, six hours or so. I woke up the next day and my hands were swollen. Making my pieces is painful; I always prick my fingers. It sounds weird, but there is something therapeutic about the whole process. It's not a masochistic thing, it's meditative.