Julie Green in her studio. Photo Credit: Pete Brook
I recently visited Julie Green at her studio in Corvalis, Oregon. For the past twelve years, between her responsibilities as Professor of Art at Oregon State University, Green has been painting plates. Each plate quietly marks the life of a man or woman executed in the US and each depicts their final meal request.
Green’s The Last Supper has steadily grown down the years. There are now approximately 450 plates in the series and, when exhibited, they come together in a ghostly feast of absent eaters. I imagine a toast to the fury and retribution of US society.
The Last Supper exhibited at Oregon State University (OSU). Photo credit: Doug Russell
Green acquires all her plates from thrift stores and bargain barns. Her preference is plain white plates, but she’ll tolerate flashes of navy or gold. The plates showing the last meals of female prisoners are occasionally a little more elaborate and may include floral decorations.
Two plates partially complete, for The Last Supper series, Julie Green’s studio, Corvalis, Oregon. Photo Credit: Julie Green
In some instances, last meals were refused and a statement was offered instead. Although, Green withholds the identity of the inmates, cursory internet sleuthing can pair meals with murdered prisoners. Writes Kelly Klaasmeyer for Houston Press:
Odell Barnes, Jr. [was] a Texas death row inmate. Barnes’s case caught international attention and caused Pope John Paul II to urge then governor, and presidential candidate, George W. Bush to show “compassion.” Barnes was executed, and Green has painted his last request on a gold-rimmed oval plate: “Justice, equality, peace.”
The Last Supper exhibited with Odell Barnes Jr.’s ‘Justice Equality Peace’ plate in the foreground. Photo credit: Aswin Subanthore
Mineral paint and Julie’s hand. Photo credit: Pete Brook
Green uses mineral paint, sometimes called porcelain paint. “I often add cobalt blue pigment to the mineral paint. Sometimes Nassau blue,” says Green. The paint slides across the reused plates and the effect is one of translucent foodstuffs. To fix the paint, Technical advisor Toni Acock kiln-fires each plate at 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Kiln firing plates, January 2011. Photo credit: Deborah Gangwer
Finding out the last meal requests from across the States is not complicated work. As a matter of process, the last meal is usually included in media coverage. Until 2003, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice published its own online record of last meal requests. Green will also write to state authorities; the information is public record and always forthcoming. The fact that the details of last meals secured as part of procedure, and as part of the service of information to the wider public, is both significant and perplexing to Green. Why our fascination?
The Last Supper: Georgia 26th June 2007. Four fried pork chops, collard greens with boiled okra and “boiling meat”, fried corn, fried fatback, fried green tomatoes, cornbread, lemonade, one pint of strawberry ice cream and three glazed donuts. Mineral paint fired on to porcelain, 9″ x 15″
In keeping with her other projects, The Last Supper is an act of meditation. (Green was diligently painting shells on sheets with fabric paint before, during and after the Gulf oil spill of 2010.) Through the act of painting, Green takes on a critical awareness that – unfortunately – many of us choose to ignore. The Last Supper is both a remarkable dedication to mindful art practice and, for Green, an unsettling focus on violence.
“I think about food, choice, and whether inmates are able to eat the food they order,” says Green. “Specific food requests, often-local specialties, provide clues on region, race, and economic level.”
I don’t think Julie would mind me calling her a foodie (she made some hearty organic soup and bread for us to share), and so to her it is logical that the connection between the body, health and living intertwine with circumstance of education, socialisation and (potential) institutionalisation.
Aware of “the heinous crimes committed, the victims, the individuals executed, the large number of minorities on death row, and the margin for error in judicial process” Green is undoubtedly invested in the politics of prisons and anti-death penalty. And yet her response as an artist is apt, personal and all the more powerful for it. If she is angry, it is quiet anger.
Many photographers have chosen last meals as their subject. Possibly the best known is Celia Shapiro. Critic Fred Ritchin has referred frequently to Shapiro’s work saying that its power lies in the food choices of men and women clearly of lower economic status, but Green corrected this view; often a choice is not ‘choice’. Prisoners in most states have a budget of $20. “Inmates in some states are limited to food available in the prison kitchen,” says Green “There is a great deal of red meat but few lobsters, no sushi, and no Godiva chocolate.” The chocolate is usually Hershey’s.
Julie Green’s self-made reference book of food images. Photo credit: Julie Green
Plate from The Last Supper series waiting to be fired. Firing seals and dries the mineral paint. Photo credit: Pete Brook
The Last Supper plates were first displayed at University of Liverpool Art Museum, UK in 2000.
Later they have been on show at the University of California at Santa Cruz; Copia American Center of Food, Wine and the Arts, Napa, CA; Oregon State University, Corvalis; The Wing Luke Asian Museum, Seattle; The Hunter Museum of American Art, Tennessee; Living Arts, Oklahoma; Fort Collins MOCA, Colorado; The Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas; The Mulvane University Museum of Art, Kansas; Reed College, Portland, OR; and DiverseWorks, Texas.
Awaiting their next outing, the plates are numbered, ordered and locked in Green’s basement. I found some irony in that.
And when is The Last Supper project complete? “I’ll stop painting plates when the US ceases with the death penalty,” says Green.
Between exhibitions, Green stores the plates in her basement. These sixteen tubs contain approximately half of the collection. Photo credit: Pete Brook
In 2003, Green was interviewed about The Last Supper on the NPR program The Splendid Table.
In 2008, The Last Supper was shown as part of the San Francisco State University show Criminal along with artists such as William Pope. L and Deborah Luster. Green’s work was included in the follow up book PRISON/CULTURE, (Ed. Bliss, Sharon E., Kevin B. Chen, Steve Dickison, Mark Dean Johnson & Rebeka Rodriguez) and published by City Lights. In 2010, I reviewed PRISON/CULTURE as “simultaneously a consolidation of achievement, a fortification of resources and celebration of resistance. PRISON/CULTURE may be a book with a Californian focus, but it has national and international relevance. Succinct, well researched, egalitarian and lively. For me, PRISON/CULTURE is the best collection of works by any US prison reform art community up until this point in history.”
FURTHER READING: FOOD AND DEATH
Famous Last Meals blog
Dead Man Eating blog
Food in the Arts: The da Vinci Mode: Last Suppers, Old & New
THE DEATH PENALTY ON PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY
On her website, Green provides the following statistics.
As of May 2009, there had been 1165 U.S. state-sanctioned executions since 1976:
43 North Carolina
42 South Carolina
1 South Dakota
0 New Hampshire
3 U.S Federal Government
States without the death penalty: Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington D.C.