In a time of political dissonance and divide, Barbara Martin turned to the thing she's always loved: Peeps. Not "peeps," like your people, your squad, your crew. Peeps. Those always-kind of stale, sugar-coated, small edible marshmallow animals that you grab from Target exactly once a year.
So how did Martin harness Peeps for their political power?
It started with the hubristic desire to win a contest. Martin has been a crafter her whole life; her first job was an editor at a woodworking magazine. “It’s always been in my blood,” she told ELLE.com. “At the same time, I really love sugar.” So when she saw that the Washington Post held a diorama contest, wherein the characters had to be made of Peeps, she felt the call of duty. “For years, I talked a lot of smack that I was going to do it and never did.” Then in 2016, she was working with hair salon Drybar through her creative agency The Brand Guild, and she decided she was going to make them a Peeps diorama.
Her Peeps masterpiece lost the contest; so did a SoulCycle diorama featuring a Peeps Michelle Obama. Then, the 2016 presidential election happened. “We all just walked around dazed and confused and sad,” Martin said. “I think everybody had that moment of inflection, [wondering] what can I do?”
Naturally, she decided she could make a Peeps diorama, creating one of the Women’s March and starting an Instagram account called We the Peeple (the bio currently reads: “The path of Peeps resistance”). She pretty much left it alone until she was inspired again by the 2019 State of the Union, when a number of congresswomen wore white as a symbol of solidarity. From there, the account took off—and took on many shapes. She made a Peeps Michelle Obama again, this time in her White House vegetable garden. She made a Peeps Nancy Pelosi, ripping up President Trump's State of the Union address. When Senator Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the presidential race, she made her into a Peep, surrounded by all her plans.
“It's [a] way that I feel like I could add a positive level of discourse to the political climate and talk about the things that are important to me,” she said. But Martin's also found it to be a fun research project, using wood, paper, string, yarn, and clay to complete her creations. "[It's a] creative challenge that I think is both just ridiculously silly and fun." In other words, it's a way to do something, to bring glee—and awareness—to this particular moment in time, when so much of the conversation is combative and disheartening.
The joy, it seems, has been contagious. When Rep. Ayanna Pressley saw the State of the Union photo, she tweeted, “Barbara, thank you for the infusion of levity & light during these challenging times. I loooove #peeps & I am touched to be included. Awesome job with my Senegalese twists btw.” Upon seeing the Peep-version of himself, Pete Buttigieg wrote, “Just when you’re about to give up on the Internet”
Just when you’re about to give up on the Internet https://t.co/wP3mcAXtlm— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) April 9, 2019
Once, when Martin was traveling to New York by train, she spotted Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon in the cafe car. Martin walked up to her and said, “Excuse me. This is going to be a really strange question, but are you Congressman Scanlon? Because if you are, I made a Peep diorama of you." Scanlon already knew. The congresswoman opened her up phone and flipped to her personal social media account to show Martin that the Peep was her personal profile photo.
When Martin and I spoke, the country was just beginning to settle into the new COVID-19 norm of social distancing and self-isolating. What did she plan to make now? How she could add cheer to a reality that had begun to feel so heavy and dark? At the time, Martin told me she hadn’t made a Peep Instagram in a few days because she’d been wrestling with that very question, knowing she couldn’t make light of such a serious situation.
Just a few days later, she posted her rendering of Rep. Katie Porter, who had gone viral after standing up to the CDC and getting the director to promise free coronavirus testing for all.
Looking to the future, Martin gets inspired by the special Peeps flavors that come out. Last year’s orange sherbet was handy for her diorama of President Trump. This year, there's a special bright red hot tamale flavor. “I have a couple ideas in mind for that.”
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