They say all art is imitation. According to a little-known Greek legend, the philosopher Plato said it first, after recognizing man’s image in the marshmallow bunnies and chicks that sprouted up around Athens each spring.
The Washington Post subscribes to this tall tale, because for the seventh year, its annual Peeps Diorama Contest has proved that art, poetry and, yes, even catharsis, can be found in miniature marshmallow depictions. Reproductions of glorious oil paintings and controversial films. Replicas of iconic landmarks or reviled democratic institutions. Imitations of human triumph and disaster.
But, ultimately, this contest can be summed up in one word: nostalgia. Consider this year’s winner — as chosen by a vote of The Post newsroom — “Twinkie: Rest in Peeps.” Few can mourn the near-loss of an iconic baked treat as do the makers of Peeps dioramas. (This month’s news that Twinkies have been rescued from bankruptcy has judges cringing at the prospects for next year’s dioramas.)
The scenes re-created in dioramas capture the mood of the moment in a medium of yesteryear. They celebrate crafting, neighborhood get-togethers and family projects, the moments when we put down our doodads and wikiwhats to build something with our hands for a community newspaper that still uses a printing press.
Peeps dioramas reek of old-school Americana, even as they challenge us to ruminate on the global events of today, from the loss of an American icon to the human price of war.
The Washington Post received more than 650 entries this year illustrating the most memorable moments of America’s collective consciousness. Many finalists are returning champions, stretching their creativity to new heights. Others are newcomers, emboldened by the political discord of today.
Lest you think the Post Peepsters are quaint, simple crafters, be warned: Peeps contestants have something profound to say. Read on for meditations on these sugary scenes, and see art mimic life in all its glory.
At Western Albemarle High School in Crozet, Va., the Peeps contest has become an annual tradition. Lani Hoza, an advanced-placement psychology teacher, and Leslie Brown, a manager in the principal’s office, have a reputation among the students for submitting hilarious dioramas to our contest. They’ve made renditions of the Facebook game FarmVille and the Mayan apocalypse, but this year, they hatched the perfect idea: a Twinkie funeral, commemorating the popular Hostess snack.
The idea alone was wildly popular with our newsroom.
“We Googled around and looked at what has been big on social networks this year,” Brown said. “When we read there would be no more Twinkies … we knew it would be a good diorama.”
“The challenge is finding a clever idea and executing it,” Hoza said. “We have a pretty good sense of humor… . As soon as the contest is over, we keep our eyes open (all year) for things that happen and see if we can Peepify them.”
And Peepify they did. It took the duo 35 hours to depict chick and bunny Peeps mourning the snack cake that disappeared from store shelves — albeit temporarily — when Hostess filed for bankruptcy in November. Adding to the absurdity of the scene, the Peep Pope comes out of retirement to preside over the funeral. A Twinkie lies in a coffin and will be buried in the graveyard where, yes, other departed treats, including HoHos and fruit pies have been laid to rest before it.
Brown bought the wooden box and wood panels for pews from Michael’s, and took them to the high school woodworking shop to have them cut before she stained them. Brown sews, so she made the cushions for the pews and fashioned all of the outfits — double-breasted jackets, hats in different fabrics — for the bunny and chick mourners.
“The hardest part is making the suits for the male chicks,” Brown said.
Hoza focused on the graveyard, making tombstones from clay. She built the fence posts from toothpicks and cut a square out of Styrofoam to signify the gravesite for the Twinkie’s coffin. The stained-glass windows feature chicks and bunnies, and the swirls of the Hostess cupcake appear on its tombstone.
Brown said their take on the Twinkie’s demise has a larger message:
“So many people grew up with Twinkies, it’s kind of sad… .” Brown said. “I wouldn’t call them a national treasure, but it’s an ode to the Hostess brand. It’s something we’re all familiar with.”
No true artist is content to remain static, and Mark Rivetti, 29, a three-time finalist in our contest, may have finally submitted his masterpeep. “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Peep” is an homage to the oil painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” by French artist Georges Seurat.
“I saw an image of the cast of ‘The Office’” posing in the style of the painting in a magazine,” said Rivetti, a Washington architect. “It’s a painting that everyone knows. I’m not that into fine art or art history, but the idea stuck with me.”
It took Seurat, the father of pointillism, two years to paint the well-known work, which he completed in 1884. It took Rivetti only 30 hours to reconstruct the painting in three-dimensional form with Peeps, a style he’s coined “Peepalism.”
Rivetti made 30 figures using the heads of Peep bunnies and sculpted clay for the bodies. He painted the figures in the style of Seurat and added cheeky features such as cocktail umbrellas for parasols. A paper clip serves as one Peep’s trumpet, and toothpicks are oars of the kayak. To match the perspective of the painting, the Peeps in the background are smaller than the ones in the foreground, a visual trick that makes point of view important to the scene.
“Getting the scale right was the hardest part,” Rivetti said.
A finalist last year for his rendition of the Roman Colosseum, which he called “Peepius Maximus,” Rivetti has challenged himself consistently by creating dioramas that push the limits of size and scale. Four years ago, he was a finalist for “RelativiPeep,” a diorama based on the lithograph by M.C. Escher. Sadly, this may be the last time Rivetti enters our contest, as he’s moving to San Francisco later this year. Was our most decorated Peepster in history aiming to finally win the top prize?
“No, I just wanted this one to be fun,” he said. “And honestly, this was the easiest one I’ve made in years.”
If you apply for a job at the Corporation for Enterprise Development, a nonprofit that helps low-income Americans, you should be prepared for Peeps to pop up in your interview. This office team has submitted dioramas for five of seven contests. By now, diorama-building has become a skill the 40-person organization seeks in applicants.
“It’s not a requirement, but we have brought it up in interviews, in a joking way,” said Kristin Lawton, the communications director at CFED.
That’s because the team takes the contest seriously. In 2011, the group was named finalists for its Peepification of Transportation Security Administration agents at Reagan National Airport. The team tries to focus on local scenes, and as many of the members live in Washington’s U Street corridor, Ben’s Chili Bowl, in operation since 1958, was a natural choice for the contest.
“It’s such an important part of the U Street community,” said Ethan Geiling, 24. “It brings together an eclectic mix of people at all hours. We were surprised no one had done it before.”
In the team’s homage to the U Street haunt, President Barack Obama visits Peep’s Chili Bowl with his Secret Service detail while the injured Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III waits outside. The team photographed Ben’s to help them scale the diorama. They dressed some of the Peeps in aprons and illuminated the restaurant with a strand of holiday lights. The structure is built out of foam board, and accessories — the Secret Service agents’ ties or the cash register — are made out of painted sculpting clay.
The seven-member team spent 16 hours building Peep’s Chili Bowl. They’re hoping their diorama will find a place of honor at the real Ben’s.
“We were joking that maybe we could get it on their wall,” Lawton said.
In the evenings, after most of the employees had left Siemens Building Technologies in Beltsville, Md., a team began building a model of Congress during the State of the Union address. But in an unexpected twist during this State of the Union, Gru’s Minions from the movie “Despicable Me” replace the representatives and create “Despeepable Congress.”
“Our original idea was to copy a scene of the Minions fighting over a banana,” said Chuck Hughes, 36, of Washington. “But Susan (Myers) said, ‘Maybe we should make it more poignant and relevant to the nation.’”
Hughes estimates it took the group 60 hours total to build a Congress of 79 Minions, working away to foil the sequester. To make the Minions, they turned Peeps upside down and painted on their trademark blue overalls, adding red overalls, too, to depict the partisan divide. Googly eyes, tricked out with modeling clay and a gluelike substance made from confectioner’s sugar gave the Minions their wild-eyed mien. Myers, a graphic artist, constructed the set from foam board.
“We didn’t have a political agenda or message, but we wanted to make a funny and common representation of Congress tripping over themselves,” Hughes said. “They don’t seem to have their eye on the prize.”
But this team did, and Hughes said they could teach Congress a thing or two about cooperation. In fact, they see their diorama as a metaphor for compromise.
“We had to make a lot of compromises and work together to complete it,” Hughes said.
Yet they still had time for puns. With nine blindfolded Peeps dressed in black robes, is Congress holding the Supreme Court hostage?
“No,” Hughes answered. “Justice is supposed to be blind.”
Nicholas Burger, 33, and Radha Iyengar, 32, encountered a challenge when they made their diorama “Zero Peep Thirty.” The co-workers, both economists at the policy think tank Rand Corp., wanted to depict a scene from “Zero Dark Thirty” without diminishing the importance of SEAL Team 6’s mission.
“It was a big cultural event, and it seemed relevant after reading so many articles about the film in the newspaper,” Iyengar said.
Still, they struggled with how to depict a film, about the killing of Osama bin Laden, that caused so much controversy in Hollywood and Washington. They saw the film and decided to portray the Peeps after the successful operation, carrying bin Laden in a body bag from his compound.
While the scene was unsettling to some of our judges, the diorama was technically impressive. Judges marveled at the battery-powered, light-up fireball made of spray-painted cotton, which Burger warned us shouldn’t be kept on too long. Burger was also careful to build a realistic copy of bin Laden’s compound, modeling it off images in the film and renderings that became public in 2011.
Iyengar says their diorama, which took 20 hours to build, had a deeper message. Some Peeps wear painted camouflage, representing members of SEAL Team 6, while others were members of the local Pakistani population, represented by their beards. Iyengar said they wanted to portray the complexity of war by depicting the local population.
“It’s a complicated scene: After having a successful operation against bin Laden, the military had to strive not to get innocent people involved,” Iyengar said.
In many ways, their diorama is a solemn representation of a moment that changed U.S. history and diplomacy.
“We had a lot of conversations about the film,” Iyengar said. “We were careful to illustrate how complicated (operations) are. We didn’t want to offend or minimize the experience. We wanted to be faithful to the subject.”