By Martin Griffith
Long before Hostess Brands’ plan to shut down made Twinkies the rage, Nancy Peppin found something special about the cream-filled snack cakes.
No, she doesn’t have a sweet tooth for them.
But she has featured Twinkies in hundreds of pieces of quirky, satirical artwork because of an obsession with what she calls the “ultimate American food icon.”
The prolific Reno artist says she was first influenced to focus on Twinkies in 1975 by Andy Warhol, who demonstrated that even a Campbell’s soup can could be an object of art.
“He showed you a new way of looking at a familiar object,” said Peppin, who has sold and exhibited her artwork. “That’s what I’m doing with Twinkies. I’m having people look at Twinkies in a brand new way and in an entertaining way.”
Shortly after Hostess Brands Inc. announced plans to go out of business last year, Peppin was among those who joined the rush to stores to fill shopping carts with boxes of the spongy cakes.
But unlike others, she didn’t buy 12 boxes with 10 Twinkies each to turn a profit on eBay or Craigslist.
“I needed art supplies,” said Peppin, who uses Twinkies and their packaging to create some of her pieces. She also features renderings of the snack cakes in watercolor paintings, mixed media, prints and artwork.
Her works include her “Twinkies in history series,” which portrays how scientists such as John James Audubon, Charles Darwin and Leonardo da Vinci would have sketched and written about Twinkies in journals or books.
Peppin, an Oakland, Calif., native who earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1966, conducted extensive research to make the series seem as authentic as possible.
Her Audubon series on the “North American Twinkie (twinkopus hostus)” includes illustrations of three “important subspecies — Cream-bellied Twinkie, Strawberry-throated Twinkie, Golden-backed Twinkie” — as well as writings describing the “birds” and explaining their migration patterns.
“Twinkies radiate out from the spring St. Louis breeding area to the summer nesting habitats throughout the world. Populations are heaviest in the North American 7-11 meridian,” she wrote.
St. Louis and 7-Eleven stores both share a long history with Hostess and its brands.
She updated the Audubon series after Hostess shut down operations in November: “It went from being the most popular snack cake in the world to sudden extinction due to consumption by raptors — capitalist vultures (cathartes wallstreetidae).”
Her painting titled “The Last Snack” is a takeoff of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” featuring Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Ho Hos and other Hostess products at a table with the same arrangement and background as da Vinci’s classic.
Her parody of a “girly” calendar from an auto body shop features a partially undressed “Miss Twinkie” standing next to her Harley.
The artwork reflects the offbeat sense of humor of a woman who by day creates special effects animation for Reno-based International Game Technology, one of the world’s largest slot machine makers.
Steven High, executive director of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla., said he finds Peppin’s artwork — and use of Twinkies as a metaphor to explore various subjects — clever, humorous and imaginative.
“In some ways, she takes this kind of silly item and treats it as a cultural artifact and imagines it as a subject of scientific studies,” he said.
“She’s an excellent illustrator and the way she pulls these (works) together is amazing. They’re fascinating and draw you in, even though the subject matter is unusual.”
Peppin foresees no end to her obsession. With many potential buyers lined up for Hostess brands, she says, Twinkies will survive into the future.
Hostess is expected to announce a bidder for Twinkies and its other snack cakes this month.
Other interested parties will be able to make competing offers once the top bid is announced.
“It’ll become a mutation of the species, but it’ll perpetuate the species,” Peppin said.
“There are all sorts of history applications that I haven’t exhausted like Twinkies being found in the ruins at Pompeii.”