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Like the world they live in, Peeps have changed a lot since they were first introduced in 1953. What started as a marshmallow coated in yellow sugar and shaped like a chick is now an empire that includes retail stores, plush products, and more than a dozen different shape, color, and flavor offerings. Some of these new wave Peeps, like a blue speckled chick, inspired this year’s dioramas, while others, particularly those with chocolate-dipped bottoms, challenged the limits of our creators’ hot glue guns. 

This year’s finalists run the gamut, representing everything from ancient cave art to young, inspirational leaders on Capitol Hill and recent scandals that shocked the world. Each one shows us a little piece of the world and allows us to pause for a moment of levity. And given how competitive this year’s online voting component was, each is worthy of a spot on the cover. But there can only be one winner, just like there can be only one Queen of Soul. Pay her some respect, won’t you? —Caroline Jones

Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

RESPEEP, This is What You Mean to Me

William Kooper

William Kooper, the creator of the meticulously crafted R-E-S-P-E-E-P, is no stranger to music-themed Peeps puns—he counts a Prince tribute entitled “The Artist Formerly Known as Peeps” and a Soul Train tribute called “Love, Peeps and Soul” among his diorama repertoire. So when it came time to brainstorm for this year’s entry, Kooper had to continue the tradition. The 2018 Kennedy Center Honors broadcast prompted him to remember the Queen of Soul’s iconic rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” from the 2015 ceremony and he knew he had his moment. “At first it was going to be ‘Apeepah’ Franklin … but that wasn’t quite right,” Kooper wites in an email to City Paper. “Then I took a look online at lists of her hits, and there it was … R-E-S-P-E-C-T. It was just too good to be true.”

Though Kooper and his partner Liz Rogan struggled to find the perfect material for Franklin’s fur coat—even a Barbie version failed to convey the necessary opulence—Rogan’s seamstress eventually saved the day, offering extra from her own coat to costume the Peep. The pair spent the rest of their time constructing the Kennedy Center Opera House in miniature, drinking wine, and listening to Aretha. The best part is when you finish, Kooper wrote. “You just can’t stop chuckling because, well, those bunnies are adorable.” —Amy Guay

The State of the Union is PEEP

Barbara Martin

After seeing dozens of Democratic congresswomen dressed in white during this year’s State of the Union Address, Barbara Martin knew she had to recreate the scene using marshmallow creatures. An avid Peeps diorama maker who admits that her passion has taken over her house at times, Martin has previously crafted depictions of SoulCycle and Drybar. This year, she wanted to honor what she calls “a moment of hope and excitement for so many people.” She went all in on the details, hand-painting the carpets to match those in the House chamber and dressing white, coconut-flavored Peeps in tiny suits, complete with flag lapel pins, to represent the men of Congress. Even the hairstyles are right, a fact Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts noted after seeing a photo of Martin’s creation on social media. —Caroline Jones

Peepsles are Back!

Kathleen and Avery Canedo

For seasoned diorama-makers like Kathleen and Avery Canedo, it starts with the Peeps. 13-year-old Avery spotted these speckled Peep chicks and her mind jumped to measles. A vaccine, which the United States has been administering since 1963, has quelled the spread of the disease and the Centers for Disease Control declared it eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. Of course, a vaccine only works if you let your child receive it. 

“We were drawn to it because we feel strongly about the issue and figured we could have some fun with it while still taking a stance,” Kathleen Canedo writes via email. The most successful Peeps dioramas do just that—they reflect our lives and our times with sugary fancy. In “Peepsles are Back!” anti-vaxxers face off against more sensible Peeps in front of a towering hospital.

In addition to its big message, “Peepsles are Back!” contains the types of details that only true mallowheads will appreciate. Check out the tiny Band-Aids, which the Canedos cut from real adhesive bandages. In the words of Kathleen: “That is some very intricate work.” —Will Warren

The Handpeeps Tale

Jennie Mak

The dystopian future of The Handsmaid’s Tale sometimes seems like it could arrive any day, making it very disconcerting when red-clad women in bonnets show up at the Women’s March, or on the steps of the Washington Monument to shoot a scene for the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel. Jennie Mak is a big fan of the show, and found that making a diorama helped kill time while waiting for the third season to drop. Getting the look of the tiny bonnets on the Peeps right proved challenging, and Mak took inspiration from makeshift hats she had seen on handmaid Halloween costumes. The various characters are color coded based on their class rank in the world of the show: eyes are blue peeps, commanders are royal purple, and aunts are pink. Mak has always been crafty, claiming, “I think some of my work would have made it to the MoMa by now, if I had a glue gun back then!” She wasn’t initially planning to enter the contest, only joining in after her son made his own entry and had leftover Peeps and supplies. Mak has also figured out how to celebrate completing a Peeps diorama: She’s gone to Disney World (on a pre-planned spring break trip with her family). —Stephanie Rudig

The Candy Warhol Museum

Renee Davis and Fred Wheaton

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The Candy Warhol Museum is a structural victory among dioramas. It’s three stories and has a lighting system so expertly executed that City Paper’s photographer Darrow Montgomery captured it in a dark room. “I wanted to challenge myself to make an actual structure,” says diorama artist Renee Davis, a Pittsburgh native paying tribute to one of her hometown’s most popular attractions. “I wanted it to be interesting all around, not just the Peeps. Every angle you look at, you see something different.” 

Davis has been watching the results of the annual Peeps diorama contest for years, but this is her first submission. She says it took her 60 to 70 hours to make it. Her husband, Fred Wheaton, helped with the Photoshop components and a few of the museum-goer Peeps’ outfits. 

In a third floor gallery she has altered a classic Warhol Campbell’s soup can, turning it from beef to Peep soup. Another room features miniature “Silver Clouds,” which she made herself. On the far right wall of the first floor, Davis recreated a Warhol print titled “Eggs,” changing the eggs to Peep chicks. A second floor gallery table incorporates a personal touch: One small notebook shows a pencil drawing of a Peep and another shows the logo of the University of Pittsburgh, Davis’ alma mater. —Alexa Mills

The Cave Peeps (Great Hall of the Bulls, Lascaux, France)

Meera Barochia, Annie Dahlman, and Katrina Rowe

Just as Peeps dioramas have broadened our definitions of art, students Meera Barochia, Annie Dahlman, and Katrina Rowe set out on a similarly expansive project. When their art history teacher assigned a Peeps diorama project, they looked beyond the quotidian—sculptures, paintings, and the like. “We wanted to do something a little out of the ordinary,” Barochia says.

Drawing inspiration from nature, the trio replicated the Lascaux caves in France, home to prehistoric cave paintings and some of our earliest examples of art. Natural materials abound in this lush, cavernous diorama. Prehistoric Peeps, complete with beards, spears, and animal skins, nestle among rocks, moss, and pine needles. There’s even a water feature that, when first debuted in class, malfunctioned. Thankfully, it didn’t cause any structural damage and the diorama, like the Lascaux cave paintings before it, was preserved.

“The Cave Peeps” finds beauty and whimsy in darkness and brutality. It’s what humans do—from prehistoric times to today. —Will Warren

Peep Art!

Kenna Krueger and Rachel Tievy

Vibrant primary colors explode to issue a clarion call worthy of the sweetest superhero. Decorated with the signature marshmallow candies, the poster board reads “Peep!” in a burst of red and blue. As juniors at Poolesville High School, Peeps artists Kenna Krueger and Rachel Tievy are students in a humanities magnet program focused on the fine arts. This year in AP Art History, they studied the Pop Art movement, specifically the parodic, comic strip-inspired work of artist Roy Lichtenstein. Their teacher encourages students to submit to the Peeps contest, so Krueger and Tievy decided to channel Lichtenstein’s dynamic colors and tongue-in-cheek style for their diorama. On top of City Paper recognition, the high schoolers have already showcased “Peep Art!” at a gallery for their peers, donning primary colors to match the art. 

The process of making the piece was relatively effortless for Krueger and Tievy, who couldn’t recall any behind-the-scenes obstacles. “We really enjoyed painting the background of the diorama as well as thinking of ‘punny’ ways to incorporate the Peeps into the project,” Krueger wrote in an email to City Paper. “Honestly, the only issue we came across was eating too many Peeps!” —Amy Guay

Vertumnus

Pallavi Battina, Amulya Puttaraju, and Angie Wang

Three Poolesville High School students, Pallavi Battina, Amulya Puttaraju, and Angie Wang, chose to make their Peepshow a replica of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s “Vertumnus.” The result is a spot-on recreation, full of the same detailed, fruitful vibrance and color as the painting, and subtle, expert use of melted marshmallow. The idea to model the Peeps project after “Vertumnus” came to Puttaraju as she was falling asleep. She and her fellow students had learned about “Vertumnus” in their AP Art History class, and she was excited to pursue this idea. “After she slept, of course,” says Battina. The work began with a styrofoam head, which the team stuck a fork through into a cylinder of clay. They used Crayola Model Magic (a non-toxic modeling material), toilet paper, clay, and Peeps to construct Vertumnus’ filling and his skin. Once the base layer was down, the team constructed nearly everything on Vertumnus’ face and body out of either clay or Peeps, then glued it all together. The intricate details, the large scale, and the frequency of pieces breaking and falling off made it the most difficult, stressful, and ambitious art project the group had ever done. But they had promised to make the project as accurate as possible, and intended to do so. “The real MVP of our project,” Battina says, “was our seemingly endless supply of hot glue.” —Kayla Randall

Universipeep Admissions 

Taylor Holgate

Taylor Holgate had long wanted to submit to the Peeps diorama contest, but each year found out about it too late to complete a diorama. When the university admissions scandal story broke in mid-March, Holgate knew she had time before the deadline and had a great idea to depict. The focal point of the piece is a crew team rowing across a blue lake, but peek inside the rowboat, and you’ll see a Peep version of Olivia Jade, Instagram influencer and daughter of actress Lori Loughlin, taking a selfie instead of rowing. Onshore, a Lori Loughlin Peep hands a pile of felt cash to a USC official as FBI agents storm the scene. There are even some dejected-looking Peeps holding rejection letters. An ordinary paintbrush didn’t work for applying letters to the FBI uniforms and USC shirts, so Holgate dipped a paperclip in paint. Though she’s a first-time Peeps maker, Holgate had prior experience making food-based art. “The last time I did an art project like this, I was in kindergarten, and it was a potato costume contest,” she says. She has some advice for aspiring Peep makers who might be hesitant to pull the trigger on making a diorama: “If you have a really achievable dream, just go for it.” —Stephanie Rudig

Dancers in the Paris Opeepra

Ashlynn Stearns, Lizzie Phelps, and Olivia Burdick

Poolesville High School art history students Ashlynn Stearns, Lizzie Phelps, and Olivia Burdick represented not one, but three different pieces of art in their diorama. The exterior replicates Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera House, with painted Peeps standing in for the reliefs on all sides. The cardboard structure then opens to reveal a full stage and marshmallow recreations of Edgar Degas’ “L’Etoile” and Mary Cassatt’s “In the Loge.” Their central dancer wears a period-specific tutu and spins with some help from a music box built into the structure. Stearns, Phelps, and Burdick spent more than 100 hours on the diorama over the course of 10 days. While they say it was a challenge to keep up with the rest of their schoolwork during the construction process, they found some stress relief in the creative process and are already making plans for next year’s diorama. —Caroline Jones