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Artist paints last meals of executed death row inmates

A new exhibit at the Luckman Art Gallery at Cal State Los Angeles delves into the social, political and historical aspects of food.

The largest piece in the group show is called “The Last Supper.” It’s a collection of hundreds of dinner plates of various sizes. On each, the artist has painted the last meal of a different executed death-row inmate.

Oregon-based artist Julie Green came up with the idea a decade ago as she read the morning newspaper over tea and toast. A description of a prison execution the day before shook her morning ritual. "His right foot, clad in a blue slipper, shook nervously after officials began administering the drugs at 12:09 a.m. Johnson blinked three times and let out a breath through puffed cheeks. His foot stopped shaking, his eyes slowly dimmed, became glassy, and closed to a crescent."

She recalled how unsettling it felt to read about the death row inmate’s last private moments alive.

"He asked for a final meal of three fried chicken thighs, 10 or 15 shrimp, tater tots with ketchup, two slices of pecan pie, strawberry ice cream, honey and biscuits and a Coke."

For more than a decade, Green had painted dream-like urban and rural scenes in the pre-Renaissance medium of egg tempera on wood panels. A friend suggested that she shift to china painting — long considered a genteel pastime — to depict the last meals of death row inmates. So she took a class.

"With a lot of ladies making Christmas ornaments and very decorative, beautiful china painting, I felt like the heavy in the class. I didn’t tell them right away what I was doing."

When Green was a teenager, she and her family had supported capital punishment. In her college years she did an about-face on the issue.

During her china painting apprenticeship, she wrestled with questions about executions as ritual and the purpose of serving an inmate the final meal of his or her choice.

"My gut feeling on why we do the meal perhaps, is the biggest motivation is it perhaps alleviates the guilt of prison workers involved in execution. It must be a difficult job to do for people. And I think it gives them something more positive to focus on."

Green’s painted 357 plates so far. The only details, aside from the depiction of the food, are the date of the execution and the state in which it happened. She said the content of the meals offers glimpses into inmates’ lives. "Indiana, 5 May, 2007, birthday cake and pizza shared with 15 family members and friends. A prison official said, 'he told us he never had a birthday cake, so we ordered a birthday cake for him.'"

She’d expected an exhibit of the plates in England to generate questions about capital punishment in the United States. Instead, she said, people asked “What’s chicken-fried steak?”

Green said the last meals can be elaborate. "Maybe the most extravagant meal from California menu that I’ve seen, 13 July 1998: Alaska King crab with butter, spinach salad, pork fried rice, mandarin style spareribs, hot fudge sundae, a six pack of Coca-Cola." Or they can be downright austere. "There’s one for a bag of Jolly Ranchers, and that’s an Oklahoma menu, and there’s one for a honey bun, a single honey bun, sometimes snacks from the vending machine."

She said the dessert and drink of one last meal she painted underlined the differences between the last meals of male and female death row inmates. "It’s Arkansas, 2 May 2000, a supreme pizza, garden salad with ranch dressing, pickled okra, strawberry shortcake, cherry limeade."

Green said she hopes her opposition to the death penalty isn’t obvious to people who view her art. She’d like the painted plates to spark debate about capital punishment.

She admitted that sometimes her thoughts focus on the victims of these executed prisoners. "It’s a very dark project to work on and I know that terrible crimes were committed and it’s pretty heavy, it gets in the way of making the work for me to focus too much on the brutality of the crime."

Julie Green plans to paint 50 more plates that depict the last meals of death row inmates. The number of executed inmates in the United States this year will surpass that number.

The artist said she plans to continue her project until this country abolishes capital punishment. Even as it nourishes her art and her college teaching, she said she’d like to end this series of china paintings soon.