Getting Started with the Google Doodle: The Creative Process

I am very proud to be the 2023 Veterans Day Google Doodle guest artist. It is a huge honor to be the sixth guest artist, and first veteran of Hispanic heritage, to have the privilege to create original artwork to honor service members and veterans for Veterans Day in the United States. 

When I learned this Doodle was for Veterans Day with a focus on mental health, I was struck by the sheer magnitude of the task. There has been at least one suicide in almost every unit I ever served in on active duty, and as a result I feel very strongly about this subject. This is why mental health is a focus area in my creative practice. The task was daunting: how do you create art to talk about something many people don’t want to discuss or face? An amazing commander I once had said, “mental health is a life and death issue, and a lifelong process.” So, I got to work.

I wanted to create a Doodle which honored the sacrifices we make during our service to this nation, but which ALSO honored the things we sacrifice FOR. What we are willing to sacrifice for, must also be what we are willing to live for. Both sides of this are tied to mental health for service members and veterans. 

I started with research. I interviewed around thirty people I had the privilege to serve alongside during the past fourteen years. To ensure I had varied perspectives, I spoke with people from every branch, from different ranks, ages, positions, career fields, and backgrounds. I asked: “what are your thoughts, points of frustration, and experiences regarding mental health during and after your time in service?” 

Research: What I Learned from My Military Service

Whether you are still serving or have transitioned out of the military, there is no “quick fix” to address mental health issues. I learned that people must have the capacity (inner awareness, emotional intelligence, openness to seeking help) and the resources (access to therapy, supportive community and existing systems in place to help) to receive mental health support. So much work to be done lies in bridging the gap between capacity and resources. 

In or out of the force, care is often hard to access. Continuity of care can be another hurdle. Seeking help is impacted by power dynamics (at every rank), and even if you decide to seek care there may be organizational or bureaucratic barriers to overcome. People are afraid to get help because they fear what others will think of them and how it will affect their careers (a very valid concern). Some members have trauma that precedes their military service, and the stressors inherent to military life compound as the years go by. We work in highly competitive environments, in highly stressful situations (some of which inherently are life and death), and we are exposed to experiences over the course of our careers which are hard to process and make meaning from. We are away from our families while also trying to maintain relationships and friendships from afar, all while still moving or deploying. 

Once we transition out of the military, we find ourselves suddenly in a massive shift of identity, and that impacts mental health as well. When we enter the service, we place our individual identity beneath the identity of the community. You aren’t just you anymore. You become an Airman, Guardian, Marine, Soldier etc. and a part of the entire legacy, hierarchy and cultural traditions that entails. This informs your sense of self, and when you depart the service, that sense of who you are shifts at best and fractures at worst. 

What did it all mean? Was it worth it? Did it amount to anything? Were the years wasted or well spent? What would I do differently? Who am I now? What do I do now? If I have done what I love doing, how do I find something else that means this much to me? How do I find people who understand me? It is hard to convey to people who have never served in the armed forces what it feels like to serve… the relationships you form and experiences you have are so out of the ordinary. You endure hardship and great frustration yet love what you do enough to continue serving. Love for the mission, for the people you serve alongside, for the purpose it gives you or even for the ideals of our nation… whatever it may be, to suddenly no longer be striving within that system can be heartbreaking even if it also comes as a relief to be done. What we experience changes us, and once we are “out” the experience can become isolating. It can be hard to reconnect to experiences with others outside of the military community when there isn’t that shared commonality in experience.

How Did This Shape the Art for the Google Doodle?

After I finished interviews, I knew I would approach this in the same style as my picture book illustrations: bold linework, strong use of color, movement. But I wanted to stretch myself further by adding dimension and cast shadow. I wanted to take this incredibly complex and nuanced topic and visually simplify it down to the emotional essentials. I decided to make a pop-up painting. 

Doodle Inspiration

Channeling my experience as a picture book author – illustrator, I decided this Operation Starry Night would tell an aspirational story depicting positive factors for mental health to honor the sacrifices we make during our time in service. With such a complex topic I knew I needed to simplify the visual as much as possible to allow this nuance to come through. 

In this pop-up painting, military members and veterans are experiencing a shared sense of purpose as they create and release stars into the sky. Our characters are working in community with one another, participating in an experience which they now share and shape. These are stars of their own making, and there is joy in the work as they use their own creativity to put more light and possibility into the world and their lives.

The “pop-up” effect in Operation Starry Night was created by layering paper to create dimension and depth. I did this on purpose to create actual shadow in the horizon between our characters and the sky. Mental health is a spectrum, which we flow across during the entirety of our lives. Difficult experiences and painful emotions always exist in the background on the horizon of our lives. Sometimes this makes its way to the foreground of our focus, causing mental health struggles. But it is through making meaning from our experiences, and making meaning in community with others, that we make peace with difficulty and move into wellbeing. 

READ MORE: Air Force Artisan Series

Each person in this work of art is an individual, with agency over their own life, exploring what is uniquely possible for them by following their own curiosity and joy in life during – and after – military service. Sacrifice is a part of military service, and we may know what we have been willing to sacrifice for during our lives. But we must also work to answer the question: “what am I willing to live for?” In protecting freedom through military service, we sometimes forget we must also take the time to celebrate and live out those freedoms so hard won.

Each star represents what you, the viewer, perceive your own life is worth living for. 

Each star for a dream not yet released into the sky. Each star for a joy shared with family, friends, and little ones. Each star for a hope, a promise, a wish. Each of us has something within us – an interest, a curiosity, something that gives us the smallest spark of joy – which can guide us to what we are uniquely able to do in our lives. 

Symbolic Meaning of the Veteran’s Day Google Doodle: The Stars

I had the opportunity to go to the Van Gogh Museum when the Air Force sent me to Europe. I greatly admire Van Gogh’s work, and when I was brainstorming ideas for this project, I thought of his struggles with mental health and how beautiful his works were (especially Starry Night). How even as he struggled, his humanity was captured so beautifully on canvas. How even as we struggle, our humanity is no less beautiful. 

I considered Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search For Meaning, and thought about how no matter our life experience we always retain the autonomy to decide what something means to us.

I thought about how George Washington described the American flag, saying “we take the stars from heaven.”

I recalled the poem Invictus, by William Ernest Henley, which I learned while doing pushups and being yelled at during my time at the U.S. Air Force Academy. “Out of the night that covers me / black as the pit from pole to pole / I thank whatever Gods may be / For my unconquerable soul.” 

I also considered how stars have significance across all six military branches, appearing in rank (enlisted and officer) and in decorations and medals (consider the Bronze Star or Silver Star). 

Some of the stars in Operation Starry Night have sharp points representing the military precision needed to carry out our duties, like the white star the Marine holds in his right hand. Other stars have rounded points, representing the work we have yet to do to make meaning in our lives after service. 

Ultimately, the stars represent the meaning each person (and the viewer) uniquely make from their life experiences.

Symbolic Meaning of the Veteran’s Day Google Doodle: The People

There are five veterans depicted in the art, each representing one of the five living generations of veterans in the United States. There is a member of each of the six branches of the Armed Forces represented as well. Each uniform, outfit and positioning was selected to give each person as much individuality as possible. 

On the far left is an older gentleman who represents the Greatest Generation. I placed him first because his generation faced the challenges of service before any of the other living generations. As someone who has lived longer and had more experiences, he is placing a plethora of stars and wisdom into the sky. 

To honor the newest branch of service in the United States Armed Forces I placed a member of the United States Space Force next. Out of respect for the transition Space Force is going through (which includes uniforms and as you can imagine brings forth its own challenges to the mental health of Guardians!) I painted the blue service dress pants with an undertone of grey. The Guardian works with a veteran to her right, balancing the white star. The veteran in the pink jumpsuit is already working on a red star, as an Army Soldier and member of the Coast Guard to her right raise a large blue star ready to be released into the sky. 

Two members of the Navy and Air Force face one another while working on a red star, as the Air Force member also assists the veteran to her right with releasing a white star. The family on the far right includes a veteran, a Marine and their child, are hard at work on a blue star. It was important to me to depict a family in my work because military families as a whole are impacted by the sacrifices inherent to service and struggles with mental health. Many families, like mine, serve generation after generation. I felt it was important to include a military child out of respect for the challenges they face and because, like me, sometimes they grow up to become the next generation that joins in service to the nation. Lastly, but not least, I included the pregnant veteran as a nod of gratitude toward the Department of Defense’s new Military Parental Leave Program, which I have personally seen the positive effects of within my time in service.  

Finding Meaning and Reason

The timing of this opportunity to create the 2023 Veterans Day Doodle is interesting. I separated from active duty in July and stepped into this work from the mental space of that transition. In addition to that headspace, I created this during a military move (my husband is still active duty). Each day I would wake up early to work on this art during the weeks we packed up our house (I made sure the movers didn’t pack up my paints!) and moved across the country. I basically went mobile with my studio, waking up in the morning before we would begin driving to draw or paint. Unfortunately, during our move as I was finishing the work… we lost a family member to their own struggles with mental health. 

I dedicate Operation Starry Night to the loved one we lost, as well as anyone in the military struggling with mental health afraid to seek help. Your life brightens everyone around you, even if sometimes you can’t see it.