By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009
What is on the minds of the unsettled citizens of an upset nation in the middle of the cruelest month of the year? We need only look to the Peeps to see.
In our third annual Peeps diorama contest, which drew 1,100 entries, the consciousness of America sprawls before us in marshmallow form. The nation is thinking about stunning feats of man- and womankind: Charles Darwin's voyage to the Galapagos (the biologist's 200th birthday was in February), the Apollo 11 moon landing (the 40th anniversary is in July) and the introduction of the Suleman octuplets (who continue to crawl through the news three months after their birth).
The nation is thinking about the economy, as jackknifing stock charts slice through the custard-colored fat of chicks, as pink bunnies float through dioramas on golden parachutes.
The nation is also thinking about Aretha Franklin's monstrous hat. A half-dozen dioramas depicted the Queen of Soul belting "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" at January's presidential inauguration, where her hat stole the spotlight.
The contest competition was so stiff -- stiffer indeed than Franklin's headpiece -- that barely any of these amusing dioramas made it to the semifinals.
We savagely tore through photos of the 1,100 entries, dispatching those that didn't immediately catch our eye. Eventually, we bickered and haggled over 100 of the best dioramas and reduced that number to 40. We rated those and came up with five finalists. After scrutinizing the finalists in person, we voted by secret ballot and arrived nearly unanimously at a winner: a gorgeous re-creation of an instantly recognizable piece of art whose tone of 1940s urban isolation continues to resonate even at the end of this sugary, decadent decade.
"NightPeeps," by Arlington resident Melissa Harvey, is both an homage to and twist on Edward Hopper's famous 1942 oil painting "Nighthawks." Its meticulous craftsmanship, with two working fluorescent lights that add the clinical Hopper glow, is elevated to a higher level by the subtle integration of the Peeps, which provide a breath of warmth to the otherwise dolorous scene.
Harvey, a graphic designer for WETA, had flipped through a book of 20th-century art for inspiration. She was looking for something iconic. She saw "Nighthawks" and knew it provided the perfect setting for situational irony. Plus, there's the wordplay between Hopper's name and the bunny stand-ins, which sold Harvey on the idea.
"I wanted to re-create the bleak urban landscape and the fluorescent light, and add a little pink and yellow," says Harvey, 44, who spent 45 hours over two weekends on the diorama. "I covered the Peeps with three coats of clear acrylic paint, then painted in some shadow with diluted blue and black acrylic paint to tone them down a little, to get them in the mood of the diner. It's pretty subtle."
The Style staff was effusive: "A work of staggering genius . . . a technical triumph . . . cinematic . . . artistic and moody . . . [with] seriously sick and twisted detail . . . it elevates the Peeps diorama to an art form."