Peep Culture: Finalists in the 2011 Washington Post Peeps Contest are a social barometer

April 17, 2011

Without fail, the annual Peeps diorama contest provides surprising insight into the zeitgeist, from pop cultural references to political sendups to musings on the state of humanity. Creative types look to the local, national and international stages for inspiration, and their dioramas are shoebox-size portrayals of the very things that have entertained, entranced and irritated us over the past year. From this year’s 900-plus entries, we gleaned that Justin Bieber and Banksy are deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness; that Lady Gaga’s appeal, while seemingly endless, is nearly impossible to capture with candy; and that some of you might be spending a bit too much time playing Angry Birds. Read on to discover the inspiration — and perhaps a few more life lessons — behind the five finalist dioramas. And if you still think yours is better, upload a photo of it to our reader gallery.

Winner

“Chilean CoPeepapo Mine Rescue”

Mary Jo Ondrejka, 53, Reston; Margaret Hartka, 53, Parkton, Md.; Bryn Metzdorf, 40, Fairfax

VIDEO: Take a closer look at this diorama

As the dramatic rescue mission at Chile’s Copiapo mine unfolded in October, Mary Jo Ondrejka, Margaret Hartka and Brynn Metzdorf knew they’d found the perfect subject for their contest entry.

“We tossed around ideas all year, keeping an eye on the news and popular culture,” Ondrejka says. “When the mine disaster was happening ... we decided it would appeal to everyone.”

Ondrejka and Metzdorf were semifinalists in last year’s contest with an Olympics diorama that featured the Salahis, and this year’s creation strikes the same balance between life-affirming and tongue-in-cheek. Ondrejka, a communications manager, took careful notes while researching the mine disaster, translating moments from the two-month-long ordeal into vignettes both heartfelt and offbeat. There’s a Peep version of Ariel Ticona, the miner who emerged to meet his newborn daughter for the first time, and a Peep Elvis, which is the creators’ tribute to miner Edison Peña, who attributed his survival to an affinity for the King’s tunes. In another scene, a Peep miner is greeted by both his mistress and his wife — the latter wielding a rolling pin — a scene inspired by the soap-opera-worthy tale of Johnny Barrios Rojas.

“I looked at what people were wearing — the people who actually brought the miners up were wearing orange jumpsuits, so I made all the little outfits,” Ondrejka says. “I tried to make the wives look fancy and pretty, and we had to have dirty, hairy Peeps. The miners had asked for shampoo and razors because they wanted to get clean before they came up, so one of the Peeps is shaving.”

The trio began with a rough sketch of the mine scene, and Metzdorf, a graphic designer, took on the role of chief construction manager and geologist. She started with a cardboard copy-paper box, covering it with layer upon layer of papier-mâché and using spray insulation and fleck stone spray paint to create rock formations. Along the way, she implanted tactile details: miniature seashells, faux gemstones to represent diamonds and a model dinosaur skeleton cut up to resemble fossils. Ondrejka estimates that the team spent about $150 to $200 on supplies. The result is an imposing diorama almost three feet tall, with a panoramic backdrop.

The team worked independently for a week, with Metzdorf adding to the structure, Ondrejka outfitting individual Peeps and Hartka, an engineer-turned-lawyer, designing the capsule and winch. “We knew we wanted to put the slice in the mountain, so you could see the capsule coming up and the miners underneath — so you could see the whole process,” Ondrejka says. “There was so much going on above ground during the rescue operation, so much equipment and so many people. I think we needed the size and the scale to do what we wanted to do.”

During the assembly process, Hartka acted as the lead stylist. “Margaret was really good at putting the scene together, deciding which Peeps were which and where they should go,” Ondrejka says. “When she put the philanderer and the girlfriend and the wife together with the rolling pin, it was just so funny.”

Finalist

“TSA Agents Get a Peep Show”

LeElaine Comer, 29; Kasey Wiedrich, 33; Kristin Lawton, 31; all from Washington

VIDEO: Take a closer look at this diorama

When you’re making a Peeps diorama, is there such a thing as too many cooks in the kitchen? Not for the team behind this sticky spoof on TSA’s heightened airport security measures. Spearheaded by LeElaine Comer, Kasey Wiedrich and Kristin Lawton, a group of eight employees of a District nonprofit organization collaborated on a scene highlighting the injustices — full body scans, pat-downs — suffered by travelers in 2010. “Our hope was to try and capture this dreaded experience in a lighthearted way,” Comer says.

With colleagues Ethan Geiling, Michelle Nguyen, Kim Pate, Jane Hanley and Ida Rademacher, they gathered two days before entries were due and set to work. A craft table played host to a range of teammates constructing outfits, luggage and scenery. “My role is envisioning the whole picture and incorporating the pun,” Comer says. “How do we capture airport security without trying to do too much and without overwhelming any one part of the scene?” The answer: split the diorama in two, creating an overall view of airport security and a behind-the-scenes peek into a screening room.

Along with its eminently relatable subject matter, the diorama makes subtle use of subversive humor, thanks to the image of a Peep on the computer monitor and an eye-catching sign with a clever tweak.

“We happened upon that sign because we were Googling TSA signs, and this is the picture that comes up first, minus the bunny ears,” Comer says.

A finalist in 2009 with a diorama of the Hudson River plane landing, and a semifinalist last year with a re-creation of the snowball fight at 14th and U streets NW, the team stands by its practice of choosing a timely topic at the eleventh hour.

“We typically do this the very last weekend before it’s due,” Comer says. “One of the things that works for us is doing something that’s gotten a lot of media, an image that resonates with people. We play around current themes, so it’s hard to predict what next year will bring.”

Finalist

“Split Peep Soup Company”

Patsy Helmetag, 61; Jean McCoy, 64; both from Annapolis

VIDEO: Take a closer look at this diorama

If there’s one thing sisters Patsy Helmetag and Jean McCoy want you to know about their diorama, it’s that there is no hidden message. “We were struggling to find something that would be fun and funny,” McCoy says. “Our inspiration is ‘The Far Side,’ which is my favorite cartoon. I love that sort of dark humor.”

A week before the deadline, they had all but given up on finding a subject until McCoy called Helmetag with an idea to create a factory making “chick Peep soup.” “We weren’t really sure if chickpea soup was even a thing,” Helmetag says. “Then, Jean’s husband said, ‘Split Peep soup!’ That dark aspect, with the division of the Peep — we knew that’s what we should do.”

Helmetag, a freelance graphic designer, and McCoy, a finance manager turned stained-glass artist, put in a week of eight-hour days constructing their diorama, with many of those hours spent rethinking — and redoing — almost all the work. “Everything was changed,” Helmetag says. “The background was silver; we made it blue. The chicks were originally made of clay, but then we went to the real thing and liked it better.” After making aprons and hair nets out of plastic bags, the duo scrapped the idea and sewed them out of fabric.

The sister act delighted in the small details, crafting soup cans out of wooden dowels and making an executioner mask from the fingertip of a black rubber glove. “My favorite part was the beginning, when we knew what we were going to do and just sat out there laughing about the whole thing,” Helmetag says. “And we had a good time together,” McCoy adds. “We honestly thought we wouldn’t be chosen, because it would be found to be disturbing,” Mc Coy says. “But if you’re a ‘Far Side’ person, that’s the feel of it.”

Finalist

“Escalator Collapse at Peepy Bottom”

Elliot Seibert, 25, Washington; Claudine Roshanian, 26, Vienna

VIDEO: Take a closer look at this diorama

After studying together at George Washington University and commuting to jobs via Metro, Elliot Seibert and Claudine Roshanian had plenty of public-transit horror stories to funnel into a diorama.

“I’m much more impatient than the average person, so on a daily basis I’m frustrated by something that happens on my commute,” Roshanian says with a laugh. “We thought, if nothing else, it’d be a very fun project for us to do and maybe a healing process.”

Seibert, a green building consultant, has tapped into Metro culture for creative purposes in the past. For Halloween, he carved a station map into a pumpkin, and he and his girlfriend dressed up as a Metro farecard and a SmartTrip card, respectively.

Seibert and Roshanian set out to incorporate the list of gags and mishaps they’d envisioned while maintaining a sense of realism. Seibert created a 3-D model of the scene using Google SketchUp; then the team took photos of various Metro features to re-create in miniature. To make the distinctive station flooring, Seibert designed an octagonal pattern in Photoshop. “As for the color, I have it deeply seared in my mind,” he says.

Roshanian, a marketing coordinator at an economic consulting firm, delighted in the process of making Peep characters after years of watching the contest from the sidelines. “It was fun, because we had 5,000 of these little marshmallows that looked exactly the same and pretty rudimentary materials to work with, so we tried to come up with funny little things that were distinct from each other,” she says. “We had many, many practice Peeps that we could experiment with.”

The diorama took a little over a week to complete, with Seibert chipping away at the modeling and Photoshop work during the evenings. And while they spent about 15 hours working together, each encountered individual hurdles. “I learned how fast you have to work with Peeps, because it doesn’t take long for them to harden into little sugar balls,” Seibert says. “And they’re harder to stand up than I thought,” Roshanian adds. “I thought assembling them and putting them in the diorama was going to be the easiest part — I was surprised at how fickle they can be.”

Finalist

“In Wake of Historic Storm, Repair Work Under Control, Peepco Spokesperson Says”

Chris Schwartz, 37; Brady Gordon, 30; David Rosenblatt, 30; all from Washington; Karin French, 32, Takoma Park

VIDEO: Take a closer look at this diorama

For Chris Schwartz, Brady Gordon, David Rosenblatt and Karin French, their diorama started with a simple play on words: Peepco. “That, plus the fact that Karin is a Marylander — she lost power for a couple days in the winter,” Schwartz explains. “This idea had that nice local flavor.”

The team used modeling clay, dowels, balsa wood siding, plastic laces and painted cardboard to create a simple yet striking homage to Pepco’s technical difficulties during winter blizzards.

“We’re on the side of the poor Peepco workers who are trying desperately to make the situation right,” Schwartz says. “There was a lot of frustration with the power outage, but those folks weren’t the ones causing the problem. We knew what they were up against, and the expression of dismay on their faces is what we love.”

Schwartz, Gordon and Rosenblatt, all researchers for a labor union, convened with French, a graduate student, on the Friday before deadline. Schwartz’s only instruction was to bring any supplies they deemed useful. “That was how we decided on the final idea — people showed up at my house with materials because we didn’t have time to go out and shop, and the criteria was to use what we had on hand to build,” Schwartz says. This is where a bit of forethought on French’s part was crucial: After a winter storm felled a tree in her yard, she snagged a tiny branch from the woodpile and brought it to the team’s construction session.

The distinctly local topic struck a chord within the team’s social circle. “We’ve heard a lot of people rehashing the days and nights they spend in the dark and cold,” Schwartz says. And as for Pepco? “If they see it, I hope they invest some time while it’s warm — at the least the same amount of time we invested in this diorama — into making sure this doesn’t happen again.”

More Peeps!

Visit our Peeps page to see more of our top entries, watch videos about the finalists, vote for your favorite, upload photos of your own diorama, and join a live discussion about the contest. You can also test your Peeps knowledge, and browse Peeps galleries from previous contests. And if you’re on Twitter, don’t forget to use #peepshow2011

Tell us what you think at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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