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Some art and artists abide. Works crop up time and time again. Sometimes it’s as if society has demanded a need for the message; it strikes a chord. Sometimes hype and PR operates to elevate average work above the average median (that’s just how it goes). Sometimes, controversy gets something seen. Sometimes a particular artwork is afforded more attention because of an artist’s prior successes. And sometimes, very occasionally, a piece of art is relevant down through the ages, to all ages, and warrants repeated visits. I saw a Joshua Reynolds at the Legion Of Honor last week. I was captivated. It deserves to be hanging on a wall and still demanding attention 250 years after its paint dried.

Prison-related art is not in the same demand as portraits of rich patrons. Now or in the 17th century. Maybe, then, I am more impressed when a prison-related art project keeps going and going. One such example is Julie Green’s plates painted with the meals of the executed. This is good art and I’d like to share why.

There’s no fixed number of plates and Green plans to continue painting them in memoriam until the U.S. outlaws the death penalty. It goes without saying that every show, just in terms of numbers, is a new show. Also, some venues haven’t enough wall-space for the sheer scope of the project. Green’s The Last Supper: 600 Plates illustrating Final Meals of U.S. Death Row Inmates is currently on show at the Block Museum at Northwestern University until August 2015.

“In fifteen years of the project, this show is unprecedented in terms of planning, installing, engagement, and press,” said Green in an email.

She’s not kidding. In the past few weeks, it has done the rounds at Huffington PostWBEZ RadioChicago TribuneWGN RadioChicago BusinessChicago Sun-TimesChicago Tribune- Evanston and the KU Alumni.

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The Last Supper is a project increasing in stature and reputation. Not without discomfort, it does so as more and more people are killed by the state. Needless to say, Green is not a malicious observer of murder. She has rooted The Last Supper in a core activist position; which is to say that she wants to paint herself into obsolescence; she wants to have nothing to push back against. Green wants the injustice of the death penalty gone.

But as the reputation of a piece of art such as The Last Supper grows, so too does the responsibility to deliver perfectly-pitched programming/discussion around each exhibit. When I have curated in the past I have not always succeeded in achieving this — mostly due to scarce time and resources. Great programming often relies on multiple partners and even then it is a mammoth task. For me, fear of not delivering grows proportionately with the responsibility toward, regional and reflexive exhibition programming. Green has named many individuals key to the Block Museum show — she, like most of us, has managed more when assisted by, and in the assistance of, others.

This post isn’t really a reflection on The Last Supper as it is a reflection on what it means when an abolitionist work, or a work with stated political goals, or a anti-prison artwork assumes a momentum that is rapid and big — a momentum characteristic more of the art world than that of the political-activist world.

How an artist responds to such momentum will differ dependent on experience, advise and, yup, the partner(s). Some makers are better at maintaining strong authorial control over their projects. Others are newer to the grooves along which art and art promotion move, and they might be persuaded toward changed elements of the work.

Working with others will almost always increase the audience and the amplification of the message but it’s something that must be exercised consciously. What mouthpieces are in use? Who’s ears are listening? The last thing I want to suggest is that artists with political message should shy away from partnership. Merely, that partnership brings different institutional biographies and political legacies to the fray. Art and politics cannot exist in separate silos and so when art emerges from a political need it must stay true to that need and struggle.

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There are structural forces at work in the art world. Makers need to carry out due diligence to ensure that the politics of their patrons and sponsors are in line with their own. Audiences need to know that occasionally work rears up because of partners’ involvement or championing and not because of an inherent message in the work or of the artist.

Again this is no comment on Green’s work. In fact the amount of travelling The Last Supper has done is daunting and I cannot imagine how Green has managed the “office” tasks and emails alone — let alone the press, the shipping, the installation details, the admin etc. The Last Supper repeatedly appears at US cultural institutions across the nation because it is good art (here’s what I think of bad art). The Last Supper is good because Green’s act of making is devotional; the simplicity of the concept makes the scope of the project not daunting but, paradoxically, familiar; the artist is passionate in talking about the work. The project is living.

It is living and it is growing.

The Last Supper is only going to get bigger. Big can be beautiful. And it is powerful. As it ships, relocates and appears in different venues, we audiences need to handle its political message as conscientiously as the installers do the porcelain plates. There can be no lack of concentration or complacency. This is life and death.

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A single wall representing the meals of men and women executed in Texas, part of Julie Green’s The Last Supper: 500 Plates exhibited at Marylhurst University, Oregon (April 16 – May 17, 2013). Photo: Pete Brook.

In The Make — a new(ish) website that celebrates artists in their crafty environments with dedicated studio visits and conversations — has a smashing feature on my friend and fellow Oregonian Julie Green. It sure beats the 2011 write-up of my visit to Julie’s studio!

I’ve been thinking a lot about productivity and it’s obstacles recently and I think Julie maintains an incredible output. Part of that is the security of teaching for her but mostly it is passion and commitment to connections and getting the work seen. What use is studio time if the products are not then widely shared?

Julie’s The Last Supper which is now 552 plates deep, is broad and grasps solidly the size of the issue it takes on. Bravo to Julie for leveraging the agency she has as an artist.

Pop over to In The Make and read what makes Julie tick. Here’s a snippet:

Shipping and installation of fragile ceramics is quite an undertaking. I am looking for a library or a university or a museum- in Texas would be great—to donate the project on a ten-year loan. The Last Supper is not for sale.

I plan to continue adding fifty plates a year until capital punishment is abolished. A poet asked if I ever get tired of painting lumpy blue food. No, I don’t.

Oklahoma has higher per capita executions than Texas. I taught there, and that is how I came to read final meal requests in the morning paper. Requests provide clues on region, race, and economic background.

Why is this important? It is because the death penalty is applied unequally depending on the race of the defendant and the victim, not to mention access to adequate counsel, jury bias, prosecutorial misconduct and a whole plethora of factors that make wrongful convictions too frequent to dismiss. End the death penalty and we’ll end the murder of innocent people. As Bryan Stevenson brilliantly puts it, the question isn’t so much does a person deserve to die, it is do we deserve to kill?


I’ve previously talked about Julie’s work herehere and here.

Coincidentally, I edited a story for Wired about the  work of Klea McKenna who is editor of In The Make. Check out Crumpled and Abused Photo Paper Makes for New Landscape Photography

Nash, Leah - Julie Green

Photo: Leah Nash for The New York Times. Plates in “The Last Supper,” a show that features Julie Green’s plates depicting death-row meals.

A couple of years ago, I visited the studio of artist Julie Green. I was compelled to do so because I was convinced that her The Last Supper project was more relevant and hard-hitting than the many, many photo projects about the last meals of the executed.

Julie Green has painted the last meal requests of over 500 prisoners on individual plates. It’s an overwhelming body of work. The Last Supper is now on show at The Arts Center in Corvalis, Oregon.

Kirk Johnson has written The Last Supper for the New York Times:

The underlying and compelling theme of the work is choice. What do people who may have lived for years in prison with virtually no choices at all do with this last one they’re offered? Do they reach back for some comforting reminder of childhood? (Professor Green suspects as much in the cases of meals like macaroni and cheese or Spam.) Do they grasp for foods never tried, or luxuries remembered or imagined? (One condemned man ordered buffalo steak and sugar-free black walnut ice cream; another, fried sac-a-lait fish topped with crawfish étouffée.)

As Green says she won’t stop painting until the death penalty is abolished, there’s a long way to go with this project. It’s great to see it going from strength to strength and pressing the issue to the fore. Bravo, Julie.


Accompanying the show is a 520-page lunker of a book. The Arts Center received sponsorship assistance to publish a full color catalog of the 500 plates. The catalog will be for sale during the exhibit for an introductory price of $50 (after February 16, 2013 the price will go up). To purchase a catalog, please contact Hester Coucke and let her know a good time to contact you during the business week.


View the full NYT gallery here. And the NYT article, Dish by Dish, Art of Last Meals.

Green’s Interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Geoff Norcross.

Following up on my post about Julie Green’s The Last Supper, I think it is necessary to make an overview of the photography and painting projects that consider America’s death penalty by meals of depicting last meals and last meal requests.

Celia A. Shapiro

Shapiro’s recreations of last meals in lurid colour are possibly the best known within this subject matter. She made the series Last Supper in 2001. Of Shapiro’s work, critic Fred Ritchin said it proves the US only executes poor people. Ritchin’s position might be true, but as Julie Green reminded me most inmates, particularly in Southern states are limited to food from the prison kitchen and usually to a budget of $20.  States that rarely employ the death penalty offer a generous $50 or no limit at all.

In all their garishness, Shapiro’s works are reminiscent of Martin Parr’s work. Parr too photographed the food of the poor; fish and chips, cupcakes, bangers and mash and trays of tea. Whatever Parr claims about objectivity there is a snide judgement in his work. Indeed it is his strength that his pictures show us the true absurdity of many of our dietary mores.

Shapiro’s work disgusts me. It disgust me in a good way. It angers me. Each of Shapiro’s images represent a life extinguished … gassed, cooked, fried. It’s hard to stomach. Good art evokes strong response.

John William Rook, age 27, executed by North Carolina, 9/19/86. © Celia A. Shapiro

James Reynolds

James ReynoldsLast Suppers was well received in 2009 but the interest in his birds-eye view still-lives seemed short-lived. I suspect they were appreciated more for their unorthodox view of a infrequently seen subject and for their role as conversation starter, than they were as lasting pieces of art.

The visual discipline of the institutional orange trays of containing in most cases a bizarre allocations of food, fairly reflects the irrationality of a state killing a citizen.

There is something maddening and suffocating about Reynolds’ ordered still-lifes. The demarcated space of the foodstuffs reminds me of aeroplane meals. For the executed it all comes down to a tightly presented meal, and this is meal is absurd.

© James Reynolds

Jonathon Kambouris

Jonathon Kambouris‘ efforts with The Last Meals Project is roughly contemporary with Reynolds (completed over 2009/2010). Judging by the shadows to the chicken legs, cups of coffee, Kambouris places food items ontop of a blown-up mugshot of a (infamous) inmate mugshot and makes the photograph from directly above, looking down.

Kambouris is tying his desire for a debate about the death penalty to the most renowned and media-coveted men and women. I am not convinced this is a good tactic as (whipped up) emotions about serial killers is not the place to begin a rational discussion on the symbolic foolishness of the death penalty. I think a better place to start a progressive debate – at least within the framework of art – would be Taryn Simon’s The Innocents or the painter Dan Bolick’s Resurrected. The existence of innocence on America’s death rows is a powerful argument working in favour of death penalty abolition.

One footnote to add is my astonishment at Kambouris’ statement at Feature Shoot: “In 2010 this photo essay traveled to Singapore to be shown in the Singapore Fringe Festival: Art and the Law. Ironically, Singapore has an extremely strict death penalty stance and I was informed that it is part of school curriculum to watch an execution take place.” Kids spectating murder? Can that be true?

Name: Ted Bundy; Last meal: Steak, eggs, hash browns, coffee; Sentence: Death by electric chair; Executed: January 24, 1989, 7:16am; State: Florida. © Jonathon Kambouris

Mat Collishaw

Mat Collishaw goes all Flemish Master on his last meals. Except it isn’t the girl with the pearl earring chomping down on that lettuce it was Karla Faye Tucker a few hours before she was lethally injected by the State of Texas in 1988. Flemish still lives were part allegories of life, death and cycles of nature but frequently used items of trade as story telling devices. Knowledgable viewers would identify flowers or precious metals from across the globe brought by the Dutch merchants that dominated sea-trade in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In the age of supermarkets and year round strawberries, the global food trade and who runs is of little significance. The inference in Collisaw’s work is that America trades in sublime murder.

Found via Art Most Fierce.

Karla Faye Tucker (2010). C-Print, 73 x 60 com (29 x 24 inches) © Mat Collishaw

Jacquelyn C. Black

Black’s … last meal … (Courage Press, 2003) is a curious little publication. It is clearly an act of conscience. The studio photography is very literal without the interpretation we see in other artists’ works. I cannot be sure Black’s prints have ever gone on exhibition. Black pairs images of last meals with text of last statements.

When one is looking at photography in order to draw critical conclusion, it is often the absence if photography (or more precisely, the presence of something unexpected) that can provide the Eureka! moment. I am somewhat desensitised to the issue of state violence; I suspect the emotive response Black and her peers expect of the viewer, I do not deliver. It was therefore, an absent image and text in its place that caught my attention and really drove home the spiteful retribution of execution:



… last meal … includes valuable auxiliary material – on the history of capital punishments; on statements made in landmark legislation; and on US death penalty statistics. Black also lists political resources for anti-death penalty activism.

Name: Anthony Ray Westley
Executed:May 13, 1997
Education: 8 years
Occupation: Laborer
© Jacquelyn C. Black

Barbara Caveng & Ralf Grömminger

Glowing like fast food menu boards but with the deliberateness of illustrations in a noodle bar, Grömminger’s photographs mounted in lightboxes for Caveng’s Final Meals installation are a bit pop. Any illusion of vitality is deflated by the procedural details of the eater’s execution.

Detail from ‘Final Meals’, installation by Barbara Caveng, 2000. Backlit boxes: Steelcases (40 x 40 x 18cm) with a pane on one side to pull, showing the execution protocol. Two audiostations with final statements. Meals photographed by Ralf Grömminger

Kate MacDonald

“The leftover table scraps relate the humanity of the condemned to our own ordinary experience,” says Kate MacDonald of her painted Last Meals series. That’s a bit poetic for me. More powerful is the fact these plates are empty. The remnants of sauce and chicken bone are primordial and bloody. Just as these items were devoured, so too will be the body that consumed them. Despite the polystyrene cup and plastic cutlery there is something very animalistic about MacDonald’s oil paintings.

Last Meals featured in the Texas Moratorium Network’s exhibit Justice For All? Artists Reflect on the Death Penalty, in which MacDonald and peers considered the injustices embedded within the death penalty; “Mental health and lack of advocacy, racial discrimination, poverty, and at the issue’s most basic argument, the possible innocence of the executed.”

The last meal of Ruben Cantu, believed to be wrongfully convicted and executed in Texas. (24 x 20 inches), oil on canvas. © Kate MacDonald

As of May 2009, there had been 1165 U.S. state-sanctioned executions since 1976.

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UPDATE: August 19th 2012

Two more projects.

Helen Grace Ventura Thompson

Ventura Thompson’s website. Her work in The Guardian. My thoughts.

© Helen Grace Ventura Thompson


Julia Ziegler-Haynes

Ziegler-Haynes’ website. Her work.

© Julia Ziegler-Haynes

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UPDATE: December 14th, 2012

Henry Hargreaves

Hargreaves‘ No Seconds is a series of 10 stark photographs that re-create last meals alongside the name, age and conviction of the murdered individual. See more of his work on Raw File,


© Henry Hargreaves

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UPDATE: January 29th, 2013

Patrick Guns

For My Last Meals, 2007-2009, Guns asked 54 chefs to interpret 54 last meals.

“From this list of last meals, I asked renowned chefs to choose a meal according to their affinity for cooking and to recreate these last wills without any fear of asserting their own Humanism. As a tribute to a deceased man, their creations are more concerned about Man than about the Cook,” writes Guns.


© Patrick Guns

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If you have any other projects that need adding to the list, please get in touch.

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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.”


Cabinet Magazine: Debt, Guilt, and Hungry Ghosts: A Foucauldian Perspective on Bigert’s and Bergström’s Last Supper

Famous Last Meals blog

Dead Man Eating blog

Food in the Arts: The da Vinci Mode: Last Suppers, Old & New


Media and the Aftermath of an Execution: Poring Over the Apparatus of Death

Louisiana Sues Its Own Death Row Prisoners

“I Oppose The Death Penalty”

Photographer Scott Langley talks about the Death Penalty


On her website, Green provides the following statistics.

As of May 2009, there had been 1165 U.S. state-sanctioned executions since 1976:

438 Texas
103 Virginia
90   Oklahoma
67   Missouri
67   Florida
43   North Carolina
45   Georgia
42   South Carolina
42   Alabama
27   Louisiana
27   Arkansas
28   Ohio
23   Arizona
19   Indiana
14   Delaware
13   California
12   Nevada
12   Illinois
10   Mississippi
6     Utah
5     Maryland
4     Washington
3     Montana
3     Nebraska
3     Pennsylvania
3     Kentucky
2     Oregon
5     Tennessee
1     Connecticut
1     Colorado
1     Idaho
1     Wyoming
1     South Dakota
0     New Hampshire
0     Kansas
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.

Source: The Death Penalty Information Center

Over two million individuals are behind bars in U.S. prisons, living in isolation from their families and their communities. Prison/Culture surveys the poetry, performance, painting, photography & installations that each investigate the culture of incarceration as an integral part of the American experience.

As eagerly as politicians and contractors have constructed prisons, so too activists and artists have built a resistance. Nowhere are these two forces pushing against one another as forcefully as in California. The book, Prison/Culture, compiles the documents of a two year collaboration between San Francisco State University, Intersection for the Arts (one of San Francisco’s oldest art non-profits) and prison artists & outside activists across the US.

Mark Dean Johnson’s essay summarises the visual/cultural history of incarceration; from Gericault’s institutionalized mentally ill subjects and his paintings of severed heads as protest against capital punishment, to Goya’s prison interiors of the inquisition; from Alexander Gardner’s portrait of Lincoln’s assassin Lewis Payne (1865), to Otto Hagel’s portrait of Tom Mooney (1936); and from Ben Shahn’s murals against indifference to the conditions of immigrant workers (1932) to the work of Andy Warhol and David Hammons in the modern era.

Johnson guides this lineage to the Bay Area, describing how Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison became the conversation topic of Bay Area coffeehouses and classrooms (Foucault began lecturing at UC Berkeley in 1979). The swell of interest in Foucault’s structuralism coincided with a grassroots expansion of prison art in the early 1980s.

For text, the editors of Prison/Culture made two canny and provocative choices: Angela Y. Davis and Mike Davis (no relation).


Firstly, in a 2005 interview, America’s most notorious prison abolitionist Angela Davis sets out – in her most accessible terms – how our prison industrial complex serves primarily as a tactical response to the inadequate or absent social programs following the end of slavery. Abolition was successful in that it redefined law, but it failed to truly develop alternative, democratic structures for racial equality. Powerful stuff, yet even newcomers to Davis’ argument won’t be as shocked as they may expect to be. She’s that good.

Next up, Mike Davis’ 1995 essay ‘Hell Factories in the Field’ is a bittersweet ‘I-told-you-so’-inclusion. Davis has made a specialty of dealing with – in stark academic prose – disaster scenarios, race-based antagonism and the environmental rape of recent Californian history. When Davis witnessed the mid-nineties expansion of the prison industrial complex (or as Ruth Gilmore Wilson terms it ‘The Golden Gulag’) he foresaw prisons’ economic band-aid utility for depressed towns; foresaw the mere displacement of violence; foresaw the assault on fragile family ties; foresaw the unconstitutional prison overcrowding and predicted the collective collapse of moral responsibility.

Davis’ article focused on the then new California State Prison, Calipatria – and not in a dry way. Paragraphs are devoted to recounting the installation of the world’s only birdproof, ecologically sensitive death fence following impromptu electrocutions of migrating wildfowl. The editors note, as of 2008, Calipatria’s facility design of 2,208 beds was 193% over-capacity with 4,272 inmates. Where birds saw an improvement in their lot, prisoners certainly did not, have not.


Contributors include some well-known names – RIGO, (here on PP) Sandow Birk, Deborah Luster and Richard Kamler whose works address incarceration, criminal profiling, wrongful conviction, prison labor, and the death penalty. The book also includes poetry by Amiri Baraka, Ericka Huggins, Luis Rodriguez, Sesshu Foster and others but I shall not comment on these wordsmiths (their work is beyond my purview) other than to say they are talented and politically in the right place.

Special mention must go out for Deborah Luster’s One Big Self project (more here). In my personal opinion, it is the single most important photographic survey of any US prison. It is certainly the most longitudinal. Over a five year period, Luster visited the farm-fields, woodsheds, rodeos and national holiday & Halloween events throughout Louisiana’s prisons. She became a loved and recognized figure among the prison population; she estimates she gave away 25,000 portraits to inmates. Luster’s conclusion? Even mass photography struggles to communicate the vast numbers of men and women behind bars.

In 2003, artist Jackie Sumell collaborated with Herman Joshua Wallace (one of the Angola 3) on the design of his “Dream House”. The project The House That Herman Built is heartbreaking and bittersweet.


Alex Donis employs cunning and cutting humour for his series WAR. He sketches criminal “types” with figures of authority (policemen, prison guards) mid-dance, often bumping and grinding. He even conjures a kiss between Crips and Bloods gang members.

Alex Donis Alex Donis1 Alex-Donis

Also unexpected is the visual testimony of condemned mens’ last requested meals. For The Last Supper, Julie Green painstakingly painted porcelain plates with the last meals of nearly 400 executed men. Grayson Perry won the Turner Prize a few years ago, in large part due to his vases of abuse, bigotry and social ills. This clever use of regent materials has also been adopted by Penny Byrne for her Guantanamo Bay Souvenirs which sets up interesting parallels and a new turn for discourse between US homeland prisons and those used for the “Global War About Terror” (GWAT).

Relating to GWAT, Aaron Sandnes established a sound sculpture in which gallery visitors were subjected to the same pop songs used in Psych-ops by police and military interrogators.

Dread Scott‘s use of audio is intentionally to give silenced men a voice. (Scott has talked about the primacy of audio in his exhibition of prison portraits previously at Prison Photography).

Mabel Negrete collaborated with her brother incarcerated in Corcoran State Prison. She mapped out the floorplan of his cell as compared to her apartment bathroom. She then developed a dramatic dialogue in which she played both herself and her brother. (No images unfortunately.)

Traced – but essentially fictional – lines of structure are fitting for San Francisco, the city in which world-famous architect/installation artists Diller & Scofidio got their start with the architectural memories of the Capp Street Project. Negrete’s CV is extensive, she was instrumental in organising Wear Orange Day, a prisoner awareness action. Also check out her Sensible Housing Unit.

Cross-prison-wall collaborations are vital to the project as a whole; so much so, that without input from prisoners, the entire enterprise would fall short. Primarily, it is the men of the Arts in Corrections: San Quentin run by the William James Association who deliver acrylics and oils of optimistic colour and profound introspection. More here.

Collaboration as delivered in a multimedia and digital format comes by way of Sharon Daniel’s Public Secrets. Public Secrets “reconfigures the physical, psychological, and ideological spaces of the prison, allowing us to learn about life inside the prison along several thematic pathways and from multiple points of view.”

In closing, it is worth noting that San Quentin prison (only 12 miles north of San Francisco) has one of the few remaining prison arts programs in the state following 20 years of cut backs. The works in Prison/Culture challenge – as Deborah Cullinan & Kurt Daw, in their foreword, suggest – “traditional boundaries between inside and outside, between professional and amateur, between institutions and people” and, “by juxtaposing work by professional artists with artists who are working inside a prison, this book challenges us to rethink notions of community and culture.”

Prison/Culture is simultaneously a consolidation of achievement, a fortification of resources and celebration of resistance. This 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.

The resource list of over 80 organisations at the back of the book (page 92) is ESSENTIAL reference material for anyone looking to commit energies into prison art programs. All told, this book is a must read for those interested in the artistic landscape of our prison nation. It powerfully exposes the vast gulf between criminal justice and social justice in US society.

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Prison/Culture is published by City Lights, edited by Sharon E. Bliss, Kevin B. Chen, Steve Dickison, Mark Dean Johnson and Rebeka Rodriguez.

Read a Daily Kos review here, and view images from a 2009 exhibition here.

City Lights Celebrates the Release of Prison/Culture

On Thursday, May 6 at 7:00 pm, join Steve Dickison, Jack Hirschman, Ericka Huggins, and Rigo 23 for a reading and book release celebration at City Lights Books. Tune in to KQED Forum at 9:00 am PDT the morning of the event for an interview with the book’s editors and contributor Angela Davis.

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Images (from top): PRISON/CULTURE book front; Sandow Birk; Deborah Luster; Exhibition views of The House That Herman Built; Alex Donis; Alex Donis; Alex Donis; Julie Green; Julie Green; Ronnie Goodman, San Quentin inmate, displays his work; and ‘Public Secrets’ screenshot.


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