Last meals

Julie Green is an associate professor of art at Oregon State University.  She has also painted at least 500 plates – white with cobalt blue – depicting the last meals requested and eaten by executed prisoners.  It is a grim reminder of our record of state killing but is, at the same time, a record of individuality.  Kirk Johnson wrote in a New York Times story

Julie Green has painted their stories — fittingly enough, on plates, in cobalt-blue paint fired to permanence — along with hundreds of other such chiaroscuro tales of food and death and choice, in a decade-long project she calls “The Last Supper.”

That the world knows what a condemned person was served — indeed, that such information is often part of the narrative of the execution itself, posted on Web sites and in news articles from the prison — is what initially caught Professor Green’s attention.

“The meals were so personal, they humanized death row for me,” she said.

But as she worked — spending six months of each year on the project, and making about 50 plates a year — she came to see the choice of last meal as a window into the soul in an hour of crisis, and also into the strange rituals society has attached to the ultimate punishment.

When I worked for the Virginia Department of Corrections, we all disliked executions.  I would stay up and watch the news until it was over.  Word would circulate about the last meal.  This is why I found Green’s project at once astounding and wonderful.  These men and a few women may have done horrible things.  Some might be innocent.  Others made terrible mistakes, but they are people.

The number of executions has declined in the United States in recent years, from a modern-era high of 98 in 1999 to 43 in 2012. Texas, which has put more people to death than any other state since capital punishment was restored in 1976 by the United States Supreme Court, stopped offering special last meals to the condemned in 2011. But the number of Professor Green’s plates keeps growing: She plans to continue painting as long as there is a death penalty.

Some of the paintings are inspired by long-ago executions, described in news clippings — like the plates she did about two black boys, ages 15 and 16, sent to the electric chair in Mississippi in 1947 on murder charges. They were given fried chicken and watermelon, the records show. Whether they requested that meal is unknown, Professor Green said, but it was dutifully recorded, and so those images — so fraught with racial baggage — went onto plates.

The last meal is one of the very few things over which the condemned has control and the choices show who they are.

But where some critics might see an unduly sympathetic portrait of people convicted of heinous crimes, David Huff, the executive director of the Arts Center in Corvallis, said he saw humanity with all its flaws and foibles. “I don’t think it excuses actions,” he said. “They may have done really bad things.”

“But regardless of what you think about it, you have to accept that these are people,” he added. “They were actual people with likes and dislikes — liking pizza and Coke, or shrimp.”

You can see a slide show of sixteen plated by clicking here.

Photographs Leah Nash

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