In 1997, Julie Green had just moved to Norman, Oklahoma, when she sat down to read the local paper with her morning tea and toast. As she was looking at the column of news from around the state, she was riveted by an item describing an execution that had happened the previous night.
The column said a man, whose name Green does not recall now, died at 11:59 p.m. by lethal injection and that, at the time of death, his legs shook and his eyes became glassy and closed to a crescent. The story ended simply: “And his final meal was six tacos, six glazed doughnuts and a cherry Coke.”
“I was stunned,” Green says. “Of course, I had heard of last words. But I hadn’t heard last meals described in such detail.”
A newly hired artist in the University of Oklahoma’s art department, Green began clipping all the execution notices in The Norman Transcript. Oklahoma has the highest execution rate per capita in the United States, so she often was clipping several items per week. At the time, she wasn’t sure what she would do with this information. She only knew she felt compelled to keep collecting them.
“I collected the menus for a while, and I can’t really pinpoint why — it just bothered me,” Green says. “The meals brought me into this issue. I grew up in a family of wonderful cooks, and there was a lot of tradition with meals passed down through generations. And the idea of a meal whose purpose is not to sustain life, or be shared, but seems to have this other symbolic meaning, just compelled me.”
An Idea Is Born
When she accepted a position in the Oregon State University Department of Art in 2000, she began The Last Supper, a project that would translate her feelings into a public statement. Her first piece was a portrayal of those tacos and doughnuts that had caught her attention in Norman. Expressed through blue mineral paint fired on white porcelain plates, the series now has more than 500 pieces depicting last-supper choices by death-row inmates.
The work has been exhibited widely in the United States and internationally, most recently at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The Corvallis Arts Center plans a show in early 2013. National news media including Ceramics Monthly, Gastronomica and National Public Radio have featured The Last Supper, as has Dark Rye, an online magazine produced by Whole Foods Market. OSU-Cascades artist Henry Sayre has included text and images, as well as Green’s narrative tempera paintings, in the 2012 edition of his textbook A World of Art, published by Prentice-Hall.
At Oregon State, Green teaches painting, drawing and contemporary issues in art. In 2011, she received grant support from the Joan Mitchell Foundation. Its prestigious award is given to only 25 contemporary artists a year to acknowledge painters and sculptors nationwide who create work of exceptional quality.
Green paints The Last Supper plates in her studio in a cozy historic bungalow in Corvallis, which she shares with her husband, artist Clay Lohmann. Every month or two, she loads newly painted plates into a dish rack and drives a slow half-mile to the home of artist and collaborator Antonia “Toni” Acock, who fires them in her ceramics kiln.
At home, Green is a warm hostess, welcoming guests with a pot of tea and a delicious dessert freshly baked, or a bowl of fruit picked from the trees and raspberry vines on their property. She attributes her hospitality to Midwestern family roots. Born in Japan to a naval officer father, she grew up in Des Moines and received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from University of Kansas.
“My art was always encouraged, but I am from practical people,” Green says. “My grandmother taught in one room school house and my mother taught home ec before she had children. I could sew before I could walk.” Home crafts – sewing, cooking, quilting – were an essential part of Green’s household.
“I never saw the difference between museum art and quilts,” she says. “Perhaps that is why the plate project, and combining conceptual ideas with very basic visuals, is something that doesn’t intimidate me.”
As a college student, Green worked with Roger Shimomura, an acclaimed artist with more than 80 pieces in permanent collections around the world. Shimomura’s paintings and prints have decidedly political overtones that address Asian-American sociopolitical issues. He has followed Green’s development of The Last Supper.
“It’s important work; important because it deals with subject matter that no one else has dealt with in such creative terms,” Shimomura says. “Not only is it original, but it is well-crafted, thoughtfully considered and politically forthright. Good work that takes chances politically always draws attention.”
Green has said in media interviews that she plans to add 50 new plates to The Last Supper project each year until capital punishment is abolished. Does she ever worry that she has over-committed herself as an artist to such an overwhelming task?
“I did say I would continue until capital punishment is abolished, and I meant it. But if I felt like I wasn’t doing the project justice or I wasn’t connected to the work, I would take a break,” she says. “Because this is work that has to be meaningful; it can’t be me just going through the motions. I have to honor the painting and honor the memory of these people.”
Devotion to Story
In order to keep the project fresh and herself creatively inspired, Green spends six months per year working on The Last Supper plates. She devotes the rest of the year to her narrative paintings that are less well-known but for her, just as essential.
“Contemporary issues inspire me, and it comes out in my other work,” Green says. “I need that break from the plates, and I need to express myself in other ways.”
Green’s narrative paintings often have a whimsical tone. For example, in the summer of 2011, she painted a series of iPhones collected from friends and colleagues. More recently, she has started a series depicting figurative imagery on decorated plates, mostly drawn from memory.
One of Green’s signatures is her use of egg tempera, a painting technique that uses colored pigments mixed with egg yolk as an emulsifier. Known for their rich colors and durability, tempera paintings survive from the first century A.D. Green is one of the few art professors on the West Coast to teach this style.
Tala Madani, a 2002 OSU alumna, took an egg tempera workshop with Green and also accompanied her on a trip to tour art facilities in China. Madani is an Iranian-American artist who has gone on to international acclaim and splits her time between New York and Amsterdam.
“Visually her work is very subtle, you get wheeled in and suddenly you don’t know what hit you,” Madani says. “Personally I respond strongly to Julie’s other works, her surrealist imagery and translucent paintings with egg tempera have always struck a very strong chord with me.”
Green has just finished another batch of The Last Supper plates, which includes a group from Virginia, the state with the second highest annual execution rate after Texas. When she began the project, she received last meal documentation through the prisons through fax or mail. Now, last-meal menus are often posted online, and she can be painting a plate within 24 hours of the execution.
In 2005, she received a fellowship at the OSU Center for the Humanities, which allowed her to delve more deeply into the history and sociopolitical consequences of last meals. Along with a research assistant, Green contacted every state that had capital punishment and asked questions such as: Do you have a final meal? What is its purpose? What are the rules (do you allow restaurant meals, what is the spending limit)? She found many states have a $20 maximum spending limit; others, like Oregon, with fewer executions, don’t limit the amount.
“Many prisons I called said that meals were given for ‘good behavior,’” Green says. “If you don’t make a scene, you get a meal. And others had some interesting traditions. For instance, in Louisiana, your family can join you for the last meal.”
Texas, which accounts for more than a third of all executions in the U.S. since 1976, eliminated last meals for death row inmates in September 2011, after a state legislator called the meals a waste of money. The irony, Green says, is that most inmates have very simple requests, such a hamburger and fries or a slice of pepperoni pizza.
“In part it is because many of the inmates are from lower income backgrounds and that maybe is the meal they want,” Green says. “Many pick comfort food items, things they associate with home. They don’t have time to digest it anyway, and it’s not as if the meal is meant to sustain them. So what they do with it is their choice, I think.”
The OSU Center for the Humanities has awarded Green a fellowship to write a book titled The Last Supper in 2013.
Green is starting a new group of plates on which she repeatedly paints the words “Declined last meal.” That is what the documents she was sent from Virginia claimed the prisoners wanted.
She says it is perhaps best she didn’t know what she was getting into when she clipped that newspaper column while having her morning tea and toast in 1997. Maybe if she had known, she would have never jumped into the fray. But now as meal notices keep coming in from all over the country, the sense of urgency is as great as ever.
“Once I started, and I saw that this was a way to humanize those who have been portrayed as monsters, by making visual something we all share — the love and comfort of food — I couldn’t stop,” Green says. “It opened my mind and made me an activist, so my hope is that this work somehow does that for others.”
See a review of Green’s project on The Salt, National Public Radio’s food blog.