Artist serves 'Last Supper' on plates

Series by KU alumna documents final meal requests of death-row inmates

Before moving to Oklahoma, artist Julie Green never thought too intensely about the death penalty.

She counted it as one among many hot-button social issues that seemed too complex and abstract for one person to do anything about.

But suddenly it was staring her in the face at the breakfast table.

Every time the state put a prisoner to death - Oklahoma ranks third behind Texas and Virginia in number of executions - the local newspaper printed a blow-by-blow account. Time of injection. Facial expressions. Final meal requests.

Green was disturbed.

"It seemed such an invasion of privacy, and I questioned why we needed to know what someone's facial expression was during a state execution," says Green, 45, a Kansas University alumna. "And on a civil liberties level, why did we have to know what they ate? They don't know what I ate.

"Also, the final meals are so personal. I love to cook and love to eat, and I was struck by the content of the meals. It humanized death row for me."

So Green, then a professor at the University of Oklahoma, hatched an idea for a sociopolitical art project: She would depict the last meal requests of death row inmates on plates.

By this time she had moved to Corvallis, Ore., to begin teaching art at Oregon State University. She enrolled in a local china painting class and finished the first plate in 2000. She has completed 233 since then. She displays them en masse and calls the installation "The Last Supper."

There's at least one plate from each death penalty state. They include meal requests both modest and over-the-top.

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A California inmate, executed in 1996, ordered two large pepperoni and sausage pizzas, three pints of coffee ice cream and three six-packs of Coca-Cola.

A North Carolina prisoner killed in 1998 requested one honey bun.

On March 1, 2000, a Texas death row inmate asked for justice, equality and world peace.

And a Virginia prisoner executed in 2004 requested his final meal not be made public.

Emotional project

After leaving Oklahoma, Green found it difficult to access the menus in other states. She spent a lot of time calling prisons, flashing her credentials as a university professor - not a painter - to get what she needed.

"I found that was probably the best way to go because they're more suspect about artists, I think," Green says.

Now she's able to find the menus on a Web site called Dead Man Eating, which combines factual information and tasteless gallows humor.

Early in the project, Green, who opposes the death penalty, struggled with the emotional nature of the work. But it's gotten easier as she's realized "The Last Supper" inspires conversation about the death penalty, which in her estimation is a positive outcome.

Still, there are certain requests that hit her hard.

"There's an Indiana menu: 'Dumplings and German ravioli prepared by his mother and prison dietary staff,'" Green says. "I was just thinking about that experience for her, and then because of the margin of error in the death penalty, if her son in this case was even guilty - just the whole levels of sorrow in that situation."

'Go back to Oregon'

As the exhibition has traveled - it's been shown in England, California, Oregon, Washington, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Colorado and now Kansas - it's met with different reactions. Some people ask why Green's not making art about the victims. Some thank her for raising awareness of death penalty issues.

"There've been some people who are in favor of the death penalty who are very critical of the piece," Green says. "And in the comment book, they'll say things like, 'Go back to Oregon, you stinky hippie.' ... I've kept all the comment books. They tell a lot about our culture and how they feel about the death penalty."

Green is anxious to show "The Last Supper" in Lawrence, where she has many collectors and had her first exhibition at The Jazzhaus back in college.

Roger Shimomura, a retired Kansas University art professor who mentored Green during her time here, says her work has always been sociological or political in nature.

"I like this series of work very much," Shimomura says of "The Last Supper." "I find the subject matter fascinating, and the fact that it reaches out to aspects of our society normally untouched by creative people makes it all the more interesting."

Sue Ashline, a Lawrence artist who does framing at the Spencer Museum of Art, is a longtime friend of Green's and finds the plate series "brilliant in its simplicity."

"It's very powerful," she says. "To me, it's unusual to have art be both political and aesthetically pleasing and exciting at the same time. This does that."

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