Julie Green’s blue plate special paints a twist on ‘The Last Supper’

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Mention “The Last Supper” and what immediately comes to mind is the final meal that, according to Gospel accounts, Jesus shared with his apostles in Jerusalem before his crucifixion. Then, of course, there is the iconic image of that event as captured in the late 15th-century mural by Leonardo da Vinci.

But that is not quite the meal that grabbed hold of the imagination of artist Julie Green. Rather, for the past 15 years, she has painted images of the last meal requests of 600 Death Row inmates in the United States, using cobalt blue mineral paint on second-hand white ceramic plates. It is a project that Green, Professor of Art at Oregon State University, intends to continue working on until capital punishment in this country is abolished.

Green’s installation, “The Last Supper: 600 Plates Illustrating Final Meals of U.S. Death Row Inmates,” will be on view, May 9 – Aug. 9, at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus. It arrives at an auspicious moment, as the death penalty is an option in two particularly high-profile cases — those of the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooter and of the Boston marathon terrorist. The names of those two men will not be used here, just as Green accompanies each plate in ‘The Last Supper” exhibition with only a description of the meal request, and the date and state where the execution took place, but not the name or crime of the person executed. As the artist explained, “Without naming the inmate or crime, the plates function as anonymous portraits that, when grouped together, suggest a memorial to lost life on a mass scale.”

‘THE LAST SUPPER: 600 PLATES ILLUSTRATING FINAL MEALS OF U.S. DEATH ROW INMATES’

When: May 9 – Aug. 9

Where: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston

Tickets: Free

Info: (847) 491-4000;  www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu

To be sure, attitudes toward the death penalty run the gamut. Green is passionately opposed to it. But however you feel about that form of punishment, the concept of “the last meal” is such a strange and compelling subject that it takes on the quality of a folk ballad.

“There is the inmate who wanted nothing more than a package of Jolly Rancher candy,” said Green. “There was the man who wanted only a jar of dill pickles, and another who ordered an alligator tail. There was one who wanted only grape juice and Saltines — a sort of Communion. Another man wanted six tacos, and I realized that this had something to do with the fact that the meal couldn’t cost more than $20 (it’s now down to $15). And there was the prisoner in Indiana who wanted a birthday cake, because he’d never had one, and that says a great deal about his childhood.”

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Something of a Navy brat, Green was born in Japan in 1961, and moved 13 times during her youth, spending time in, among other places, Western Springs, Ill. ,and Des Moines, Iowa. Before attending graduate school at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, she returned to Japan, a place she loves (and where her six-foot-tall stature attracts attention), and taught in a rural agricultural area where she studied traditional crafts.

“In 2000 I became the first woman to teach painting at the University of Oklahoma,” said Green. “And I soon learned that state had the highest number of executions per capita. In fact, there was a special part of the morning paper devoted to news of who had been executed the night before, and their last words. That was at the height of the executions, with about 220 a year. It’s now closer to 50 or less.”

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“I come from a conservative, Christian, Midwestern family that is largely in favor of capital punishment,” Green confessed. “But I had a change of heart about it in my twenties.”

After arriving at her post at Oregon State University, Green got a research grant that enabled her to learn more about the justice system and differing death penalty laws in each state.

“Texas had one third of all the executions in the country, and their ‘last meals’ were highly publicized, although now it’s down to the standard prison meal on a square platter. California and Idaho had relatively few executions. Oregon now has a moratorium on them. Thirty-five states still allow death penalty sentences. Japan, by the way, still has executions, but inmates are not informed in advance; they are simply given a sweet bean cake the morning of the event.”

The first large showing of Green’s plates was in 2000-2001, by which time she had made 130 of them. They were displayed at a food art and wine museum in the Napa Valley that has since closed.

“Then a woman whose uncle was a warden at Folsom State Prison in California contacted me and said he’d be able get me the historical records of the last meals requested, perhaps from as early as 1917,” said Green. And I also learned a great deal from a Chicago writer, Robert K. Elder, whose book, ‘Last Words of the Executed’ was extremely helpful to me.”

Individually, each of Green’s painted plates functions as both “a portrait and a still life steeped in the traditions of painting and fine craft, with the influences of Dutch Delftware and Spanish still life painting” part of the mix. For the artist, it is part ritual and part performance, with the exhibition “using the tradition of offering a last meal before execution to help expose the uneven practices and policies of the state-administered capital punishment system.”

Illinois 22 November 1995. Filet mignon (medium well) with mushrooms, shellfish, baked potato, sour cream, brussel sprouts, salad with Italian dressing, corn on the cob, pistachio ice cream, cannoli. | COURTESY OF JULIE GREEN

Illinois 22 November 1995. Filet mignon (medium well) with mushrooms, shellfish, baked potato, sour cream, brussel sprouts, salad with Italian dressing, corn on the cob, pistachio ice cream, cannoli. | COURTESY OF JULIE GREEN

Noting that the technique of “mineral painting” is hundreds of years old, Green explained that she paints on pre-fired, pre-glazed plates with a blue paint the consistency of Vaseline, and that the paint stays wet until it is fired at a super-high temperature in a ceramicist’s studio.

“I think a great deal about the victims of the crimes,” said Green, who admitted she often is questioned about why she doesn’t paint the victims’ last meals. “But the attacks I’ve faced haven’t changed my mind about capital punishment. I often think about how my grandfather would lie on the couch, holding his newspaper in the air, and then write letters to the editor about things that bothered him, because in my family such discourse was not considered proper at the table. These plates are like my letters to the editor.”

NOTE: Several special events are planned in conjunction with”The Last Supper” exhibition, including:

— May 9, 2 p.m. (Fisk Hall, Room 217): Julie Green will discuss her process and how the project relates to her larger artistic concerns, and will then join in conversation with Rob Owen, Clinical Professor of Law at Northwestern, and Elliot Reichert, Curator of Special Projects at the Block Museum, to discuss issues of representation, the criminal justice system, and social justice.

— May 19, 6 p.m., “Seen from Inside: Perspectives on Capital Punishment”: In partnership with the Center for Capital Defense and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, the Block will present various perspectives on capital punishment—from an exhibition overview by Block Curator of Special Projects, Elliot Reichert, to a capital case closing argument enacted by a death penalty defense attorney, to a conversation with a former prisoner exonerated from death row, and insights from a family member of a homicide victim.

—May 27, 6 p.m, “When You CAN’T Shake It Off”: Will Schmenner, Block Cinema interim curator, and Harvey Young, Northwestern University associate professor, will discuss the role and use of social media in creating a national conversation about race, law, and the limits of police power. How does civil resistance operate in the Internet era?

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