In her quiet, forceful, beautiful way, Julie Green is trying to end the death penalty in this country. She paints, on ceramic plates, portraits of death-row inmates' last meal requests. In the past decade, she's done more than 500 plates, and she plans to do 50 a year until the death penalty is finally abolished.
Growing up, Green says, she shared her family's (and President Nixon's) view of capital punishment: They supported it, sometimes with fervor.
"Now," she says simply, "I don't."
When she was teaching at The University of Oklahoma in the late '90s, Green read an article in the daily paper. It described an execution and included the vivid details of that inmate's last meal and final moments of life. Oklahoma had, and still has, the highest per-capita rate of execution. The last meal humanized the inmate to Green. She writes on her website: "After seeing a request for six tacos, six glazed donuts, and a Cherry Coke," she writes on her website, "I wondered: Why do we have this tradition of final meals? Fifteen years later, I still wonder." That wonder translates into some very profound art.
Some of the last meal requests that Green paints are searingly personal, drawn from the condemned's childhood memories. Others are tinted with a skewed vision of luxury dining. "There is a great deal of red meat, a few lobsters, no sushi, and no Godiva chocolate," she says. "An Oregon inmate's request closed with 'I would appreciate the eggs hot.' And who wouldn't?" Still other meals are disappointingly generic, but that's because some states, such as California, only allow takeout, up to $50 worth. Oklahoma, where Green's project got started, allots a mere $15, less than it permitted in the late 90s. Those last meals tend to come from from Pizza Hut and Long John Silver's. Texas, which executes more inmates every year than all other states combined, got rid of the last-meal ritual entirely in 2011.
The plates cover a wide time period. There's her commemoration of the execution of two young Mississippi black men in 1947, and the guy in 1917, who, with gallows humor, said he wanted an apple because "I have a bad taste in my mouth." But most of them are contemporary, giving the project an air of urgency. Green's artwork, done on secondhand plates with subtle blue mineral paint, calls into question everything we think and know about the death penalty. It humanizes the inmates but doesn't excuse their crimes. Most of all, it causes us to question the warm, positive memories we all have about food, using the curious ritual of the condemned's final meal as a prism.
"I'm a food person," she told The New York Times in a review of a recent showing of her work. "I grew up with great cooks and great food. Food has always been a celebratory thing for me. That's part of why this whole thing is interesting to me--because of the contrast. It's not a celebration."
This video from Dark Rye was produced by Ira Chute and edited by Jason De La Rosa.