One morning last month, Roxbury artist Ekua Holmes got an unexpected e-mail. The subject line: “Hello from the Google Doodle team!”
She didn’t know what a Google Doodle was, let alone that it had a whole team behind it. “I’m sure I’d seen them, but I didn’t know it was a whole thing,” she said.
She does now. On Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Holmes’s Google Doodle illustration honoring the civil rights leader is the featured image on Google’s US homepage. The collage depicts King walking arm in arm with fellow activists in Selma, Ala.
Most artists could only dream of such exposure. Traffic to the page is typically in the many millions. “It’s pretty astronomical [and] jaw-dropping,” said Ryan Germick,
Holmes, a painter and collage artist who is not represented by a gallery, was shocked to be tapped for the project. “He said he found me somewhere on the Internet. Somewhere on the Internet? That’s like somewhere in the Himalayas,” said Holmes, 59, whose Roxbury home is about five blocks from where she grew up.
Holmes works out of a South End studio, a jumble of art materials, found objects, and assorted items from the past — a VHS player (which she still uses), an old record player, her childhood tambourine, and her atlas dating to 1954. “Lots of things that inspire me have age on it,” she said during a recent studio visit.
The artist layers newspaper, photos, fabric, and other materials to create luminous compositions. Many of them evoke her own happy childhood in Roxbury’s close-knit Washington Park neighborhood, where, she said proudly, King had visited. King studied at Boston University in the early 1950s — living just a few blocks from where Holmes’s studio is now — and he preached at Roxbury’s Twelfth Baptist Church, which Holmes visits occasionally.
“You hear about families breaking down in [Roxbury] neighborhoods, and you can focus your attention there, but I prefer to focus my attention on families that take care of each other and spend time together,” she said.
When Holmes grew up, her neighborhood felt to her like an extended family. Her father, who died when she was 8, was a waiter on Beacon Hill; her mother was a bookkeeper and accountant. “Those were the days when you knew everyone on your street,” said Holmes, a 1977 graduate of Massachusetts College of Art.
“When I think of Roxbury, I think of richness, comfort, opportunity,” said Holmes, who even as a child loved playing with paper and other materials to create designs.
Her role models in the neighborhood included arts leader Elma Lewis — “she lived five streets down” — and mural artist Gary Rickson. (“My cousin took me to visit him. I smelled his paint.”)
“Everybody was encouraging you. You knew people expected great things from you,” she said.
Holmes earned a scholarship to Shady Hill School, the prestigious private school in Cambridge. She took ballet classes at the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts and elocution lessons in the South End. “My mother was determined to make life better for me, and education was the way.”
Holmes was determined to be an artist, though it wasn’t until her mother’s death some 25 years ago that she threw herself fully into it — “the event that really triggered me thinking deeply about what life is, that we don’t live forever.”
In the last couple of years, Candlewick Press, the acclaimed children’s book publisher based in Somerville, has commissioned Holmes to illustrate a picture-book biography of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, which comes out in September, as well as a book of poetry.
In 2013, Holmes was named to the Boston Art Commission, which oversees public art projects on city property. And she’s creating a community installation that opens at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Feb. 7: a gigantic interactive collage with scenes of Boston in transition, designed to complement the new ICA group exhibition, “When the Stars Begin to Fall.”
Holmes, who is passionate about grass-roots community arts outreach, also works part time for MassArt, where she is director of sparc!, the ArtMobile, an initiative that brings art and design workshops and programs to people in Boston.
For countless Web users, Google Doodles are one highly accessible form of art — little surprise goodies that break up the monotony of an everyday Internet search. They surface randomly — “probably 40 times a year,” Germick said — and can be animated, interactive, video, or static, like Holmes’s collage.
The Doodles, which incorporate the Google logo, celebrate events, achievements, or holidays, ranging from Christmas to the 50th anniversary of “Doctor Who.”
Google has a core team of about 10 artists and engineers who work on the Doodles, “but we look to mix it up and we are always on the lookout [for artists],” said Germick, himself an illustrator who has personally worked on hundreds of Doodles.
He found Holmes by chance, he said, and put her on his “running list of dream collaborators.” As Martin Luther King Jr. Day approached, he reached out to her.
“We thought she would be wonderful,” he said. “Her work has a universal quality and is really colorful and vibrant.”
Holmes treasures this opportunity. “It’s very cool to think of representing him on his special day,” she said of King. “It will be a different thing to get up on the 19th and type in Google.com.”