Home » ARx2 » Portrait of Johanna

Portrait of Johanna – NAFLD Study, The Researcher Becomes The Subject

by Monica Aissa Martinez and Johanna DiStefano


By Monica Aissa Martinez

The artwork represents Dr. Johanna DiStefano, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) researcher and fellow collaborator. Early in our interaction, I decided to work on a full-scale human study (anatomy and physiology). The same day, to my surprise, I also learned Johanna has NAFLD. With conversation, clarity of goals, as well as her permission – Johanna (Dr. DiStefano) became the subject. Most every detail in this study opens a conversation, in general about Johanna, in particular about her work as a researcher, and then specifically, about NAFLD. Included are five smaller support works, representing the various players (cells and chromosomes/genes) in this liver disease. 

I speak for both of us when I note, the project evolved beyond our expectations. I believe impact is greater when a work is real-person narrative.

About the Process

I recall the morning I talked with Johanna about how I might approach this new study based on nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Initially, I envisioned painting a torso 24×36″ with emphasis on the liver. That idea went out the window, when I come to understand that NAFLD can affect any one of numerous organs and/or systems in the body. This information directs me to create a life-size human. Having a deadline adds another twist. This is going to take a good while, I say to Johanna, right now, I need to find the right person, someone with NAFLD. Do you know anyone? I see her thinking, and then Johanna announces she herself has nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

Why do I feel confused to hear this? Because Johanna heads the lab that is doing the research? Because she is a picture of health? Isn’t this a predominately Latino issue? You have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease!? For all noted thoughts and then some, comes the next question, “Would you be interested in being subject-matter for this artwork?  Think about it. Don’t answer right now.” She explains some of the stigma surrounding NAFLD and a hope for people to overcome. Yes, she wants to do this.

Read more about the process behind the work on Monica’s blog, here.

Meet the Team

Artist: Monica Aissa Martinez

Monica Aissa Martinez was born in El Paso, Texas and earned a Bachelors in Fine Arts from the University of Texas at El Paso and Masters in Fine Arts from New Mexico State University, Las Cruces. She has kept an ongoing artist blog for more than ten years and exhibited extensively in museums and galleries, including including Nothing in Stasis (solo) at Tucson Museum of Art, Nothing in Stasis (solo) at Mesa Contemporary Arts, Nothing In Stasis at University of Arizona Medical School (solo); Draw, the art of curiosity and innovation at Tempe Center for the Arts (Artist-in-Residence); Between Earth and Sky: Contemporary Art from the American Southwest in China and at the ASU Museum; Drawing with Everything, Art at the Cellular Level, and Beyond Boundaries, Map in Art, all at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport Museum; AZ Biennial at Tucson Museum of Art, Connections to the Natural World at LA Artcore Brewery Annex; and notably State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now at Crystal Bridges Museum.

Researcher: Johanna DiStefano

Dr. Johanna DiStefano is a Professor and Head of the Diabetes and Fibrotic Disease Unit where she leads research in the molecular mechanisms of chronic, progressive metabolic diseases. For more than twenty years, Dr. DiStefano has investigated molecular mechanisms underlying type 2 diabetes and related hepatic and renal complications. During this time, she has led many successful NIH-funded studies to identify genetic and molecular factors associated with the development and progression of diabetic kidney disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), and diabetic dyslipidemia, all of which contribute significantly to morbidity and mortality in patients with diabetes. She currently has major efforts in the investigation of epigenetic mechanisms underlying the development and progression of NAFLD and the role of extracellular vesicle content in mediating metabolic derangements in obesity and improvements in metabolic parameters associated with bariatric surgery and lifestyle interventions. Her team works with ethnically diverse patient populations using state-of-the-art laboratory approaches to address important gaps in our understanding of disease pathogenesis and directly impact unmet clinical needs. 

Closer Look:


Main work ; acrylic, casein, gesso, gouache, graphite, ink, micaceous iron oxide,, Pigma micron, Prismacolor pencil on prepared Arches paper

Supporting work ( Casein, gesso, graphite, ink micaceous iron oxide, Prismacolor pencil on Mylar, Acrylic disks, bolts

Main work: 38″x52″
Supporting works are small 2 sided disks: 8.5” diameter, 5 ¼”diameter, 8” diameter, 9” diameter and 9.5” diameter

Cost of Piece:
$12,000 (main piece, one available)
$450 large disks (4 available)
$275 small disk (1 available)