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Pick of the Peeps: Peeps dioramas serve up a candy-colored take on pop culture

By Holly E. Thomas
Sunday, April 4, 2010; W10

Our annual Peeps diorama contest is a cultural barometer -- a three-dimensional essay on the state of the nation's collective consciousness, a sticky finger on the pulse of what's popular. This year's 1,100-plus entries told us what's on your minds once again, and we sifted through that flood of submissions, painstakingly narrowing the contenders in our fourth annual contest down to 50, then down to five, and finally down to one.

Dozens of dioramas showcased Shaun White's Olympic conquests, while other tiny scenes took their competitive cues from curling and hockey. A slew of dioramas captured the nonathletic exploits of Tiger Woods and Gilbert Arenas. And there was plenty of localized fodder, as well: The Salahis, the record snowfall and the departure of Tai Shan all warranted the Peeps treatment. Even the gun-toting police officer from the 14th and U streets snowball fight got to live on in sweet infamy.

Lest you think our little competition is lowbrow, consider the metaphysical implications of a diorama of two Peeps making a diorama, or one in which a group of Peeps visits an exhibition of Peeps dioramas. A handful of pop culture devotees used the marshmallow medium to remember some recently deceased icons, including Michael Jackson, Patrick Swayze and J.D. Salinger -- not one but two entries memorialized the author of "The Catcher in the Rye."

But we had to choose a winner, and after much thought, debate and up-close-and-personal inspection, the Magazine staff was won over by the impressive craftsmanship that went into a representation of the Oscar-winning animated flick "Up."

***

Winner

"EEP"

by Michael Chirlin, 25, and Veronica Ettle, 27, Arlington

Semifinalists in last year's competition with their take on "Wall-E," significant others Chirlin and Ettle aimed to outdo themselves, constructing a replica of the movie's airborne home out of plywood and hundreds of popsicle sticks. Oh, and did we mention that it ... well ... floats?

Chirlin works for a company that designs virtual-reality goggles, and he relied on his experience with 3-D computer modeling to create the basic structure. "I built the house using a computer first, and figured out what kind of pieces I needed to cut out of wood," he says. "Then I just bought plywood, drew the pieces on it and cut them out."

After forming the basic structure from plywood, the duo snipped popsicle sticks to create the siding, scalloped lattice and shingled roof. Ettle, a field director for the Girl Scouts, painted the house in a palette of pastels and created the balloons by covering a large foam egg with chunks of Peeps.

The diorama re-creates the moment in the film when the house takes flight, with the elderly widower Carl tucked away inside and Russell the Boy Scout clinging to the front door. "We've always liked Pixar movies," Chirlin says. "We saw 'Up' this year, and it seemed like a logical progression from 'Wall-E' to 'Up.' And we thought the balloon would look really good with Peeps on it."

The pair, who worked on the diorama every night for two weeks, had learned from last year's project that a bit of space can help the creative process -- or at least protect the relationship. "Last year, we had a couple arguments about the diorama," Chirlin says. "We just have to stay out of each other's way and let the other person do their own thing."

Perhaps the most magical part of this hefty creation, what imbues it with a sense of wonder and magic, and elevates it to the level of art, is the movement that comes from the metal coils at its base. "I love the floating aspect, because we had the house built, and then we thought, 'What can we do now?'" Chirlin says. First, they experimented with springs from Home Depot, but the house was too heavy for them to hold. But when the couple went down to the basement of their building to paint the house, they stumbled on a discarded box spring. Voila -- the gift of flight.

So, will they aim for a hat trick in 2011? "It's up in the air," Chirlin says with a laugh, as Ettle lets out a groan. "One of my co-workers offered to buy it today," he says of the masterpiece but notes that he and Ettle might replace last year's "Wall-E" diorama on their dresser with the "Up" creation. "Or maybe I'll send it to Pixar," Chirlin says, "and ask for a job."

Finalist

"Creating a Masterpeeps"

by Phyllis Mayes, 55, Silver Spring

With 15 years of art classes under her belt, Mayes drew on her experience as both an artist and a figure model for her rendition of a figure painting class. Three Peeps art students, equipped with aprons, tiny easels, canvases and paintbrushes -- makeup brushes that Mayes repurposed -- paint portraits of a nude Peep reclining on a fainting sofa. The walls are decorated with study drawings, paintings, and posters advertising works by Peepcasso and Mapeeps, all of which were created by Mayes using pastels, oil paints, charcoal and pencil. A tiny Peep skeleton -- for anatomical reference -- completes the scene.

"One of my painter friends had the idea of doing a skeleton, and I had all these little ones at home. Once I started taking them apart, I realized that the leg bones made really good rabbit ears," Mayes says. "Although rabbit ears are probably just cartilage, I guess. ... But verisimilitude probably isn't the most important thing in this case."

Mayes's theme was inspired by a trip to a craft store, where she found the miniature easels and canvases. A dollhouse furniture shop turned up the tiny couch, and she sewed scrap fabric into curtains, hanging them from a paintbrush. The "nude" Peep is coated in gesso, a white art material used to prep surfaces for painting, which creates a sharp contrast with its pastel peers.

"The real work was doing the art -- that took a long time," Mayes says, noting that she spent 40 to 50 hours to complete her diorama. "I make little pins with small paintings on them, so I'm really good with miniatures. The biggest challenge was getting the photos done, because I don't even have a camera!"

Finalist

"Goodnight Peep"

by MaryLea Harris, 34, Fairfax

"As a child, I read 'Goodnight Moon' with my mom as a bedtime story, and when I had my own daughter, it was one of the first books I bought," says Harris, a former elementary school art teacher. The blogger and stay-at-home mom reached the semifinal round in the 2008 Peeps contest with a diorama inspired by "Sesame Street," and she chose another family-friendly theme this time with Margaret Wise Brown's beloved children's tale.

Harris got a late start, but she pulled her diorama together over the course of a Saturday afternoon. "Being the crafty person that I am, I actually had everything in my house to build the diorama, minus the dollhouse fireplace and the rocking chair. I don't know if that's neat, or scary," she says, laughing.

"I wanted everything in there that was in the original book, so I got out my daughter's copy, but I basically had it all memorized," Harris says. "The most interesting part was asking the questions like: How do you make a lampshade? What can I use for a balloon? ... I liked thinking outside the box and trying to 'MacGyver' it a little bit."

The biggest challenge, she says, was finding the right Peeps. After four stops at local retailers, her husband and eldest daughter found the sought-after yellow bunnies, but by that point Harris had mostly assembled the diorama. "It was really fun to do, and that was important to me," she notes. "If you're going to spend that many hours on something, it should be something you enjoy."

Finalist

"Freedom Is Not Free: A Peeps Tribute to the Veterans of the Korean War"

by Elizabeth Teuwen, 38, Gregory Stackel, 42, and Genevieve Sapir, 37, Washington

This Peepified version of the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall strikes a delicate balance between evocative and clever. "We were having a brainstorming session and trying to come up with clever names based on Peeps, but then we thought we could do something distinctly Washington," says Sapir, whose team includes her husband and her best friend. "I think what we really liked about the memorial was how it looks at night, and we thought it would be fun to make a nighttime scene."

Lawyers who met while working at the National Archives, Sapir and Teuwen collaborated with Stackel, an architect, who created a structurally sound base for the diorama. Teuwen, an accomplished crafter, gets the majority of the praise for the artistry. "Once we settled on a theme, we regrouped, and Elizabeth bought a bunch of supplies and brought her sewing kit," Sapir says. The diorama took one full Saturday to construct.

Nine soldier Peeps wear fabric ponchos and tilt forward under the weight of clay helmets and guns. The fencing is crafted from wire and toothpicks, while a string of lights replicates the ground-level lighting of the memorial. Mimicking the actual memorial's sea of faces etched on a granite wall, the left wall of the diorama showcases black-and-white images of Peep bunnies and chicks.

It was the team's second year entering, and they had learned a thing or two about the division of labor. "Because I'm not as good at the crafts, I always have a lot of doubts that it's going to come together during the initial assembly," says Sapir, who does more of the conception than the construction and photographs the finished product. "In the past, I questioned Elizabeth and Greg, but now I've learned not to question them, because I know it's going to be great."

Finalist

"The Mad Hatter's Peep Party"

by Amy Billingham, 36, Kensington; Lauren Emeritz, 27, and Rob Black, 40, Washington

Partners at a small graphic design firm in the District, Billingham, Emeritz and Black spent roughly 50 hours assembling their first-ever diorama, a colorful rendition of the tea party scene from "Alice in Wonderland."

"We've wanted to enter for the last couple years because it seemed like a fun competition," Emeritz says. "This time, we remembered before it happened, instead of after," Billingham adds.

Built primarily of Sculpey oven-bake clay, the diorama features a hand-sculpted table and chairs, tiny paper lanterns attached to LED lights, and Billingham's favorite touch, a row of bunny-shaped topiaries. The trio scooped up a branch felled by a snowstorm and glued on leaves to create the miniature tree that arches over the scene. "So no trees were harmed in the making of this diorama," Black says.

Noting the team's attention to detail, Billingham gives kudos to Emeritz for her skillful crafting of the table and chairs. "I was most amazed by the chairs, and by all the work that was done on the furniture," Black says. "I saw the rough schematics before I went home one night to work on the backdrop, and came back and saw all these incredible pieces." Black put his Photoshop skills to the test to create the backdrop, while Billingham made paper clothes for Alice, the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit.

The finishing touch? A doll-sized plate piled with tiny clay bunny Peeps, made by Billingham. "We thought you might get a lot of 'Alice in Wonderland' ones," she says, "so we figured we'd better make our individual pieces as kick-butt as possible."

MORE PEEPS

Photos: Peeps Show IV

Live Q&A: Talk Peeps with Holly E. Thomas Wednesday at 12 ET

Videos: Closer looks at our five finalists

More: Complete Peeps coverage

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