In vivid cobalt blue, Julie Green carefully paints a hamburger seasoned with salt and pepper, a stack of onion rings, french fries, cherry limeade, and a big bowl of vanilla ice cream on a white porcelain plate. The crude contour lines illustrate the final meal of death row inmate Paul Everette Woodward. “He told me he was saving room for his last meal,” the warden had told the local paper. “He ate everything except a few fries.”
Each morning Green reads the newspaper with a slice of toast and a cup of white tea. One day about 20 years ago, when she was living in Oklahoma, the small print of an execution notice in the Norman Transcript caught her attention: “His final meal was six tacos, six glazed doughnuts and a Cherry Coke.” “Why six?” she wondered. The details of the meal continued to haunt her. And so, on a faded sheet of government ledger paper, she began to paint six tacos, six glazed doughnuts, and a Cherry Coke in a palette of bright primary colors.
In the winter months, the artist, who now lives in Oregon, creates a plate a day as part of her ongoing series “The Last Supper: Final Meals of Death Row Inmates,” now on display at the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. (Only part of the year is spent on “The Last Supper.” “I wouldn’t have been able to sustain a 15-year project of such heavy subject matter full-time,” she explains.) Over time, in order to encourage a sense of empathy, Green began painting each meal on a white porcelain plate, placing the viewer in the position of the prisoner with a meal set before him. (Her technical advisor, Toni Acock, does the firing.) A plate dated September 27, 1929, is painted from an aerial perspective; we gaze down at a hearty breakfast of sunny-side-up eggs, hash browns, and black coffee. She uses clippings from weekly sales flyers and fast food advertisements, stored in a small recipe book, as templates for her simple sketches of a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, a carton of Blue Bell Ice Cream, and Sunkist Orange Soda. She abandoned the brilliant colors of cadmium red, lemon yellow, and viridian green because of the toxicity of the mineral paints. “I couldn’t get a bright red for tomatoes or ketchup, or a bright green for green beans, so I decided to limit my palette to one color—blue. I think it is helpful that there is some beauty in the painting to balance the inherent sadness of the subject matter.”
An elegant serving plate dated March 14, 2001, is decorated with a pattern of blue arabesques. The label reads: “German ravioli and chicken dumplings prepared by his mother and prison dietary staff.” Yet another plate dated May 5, 2007, depicts a festive chocolate cake with twinkling candles. “He told us he never had a birthday cake,” a prison official explained to Green, “so we ordered a birthday cake for him.”
Seemingly prosaic details reveal a painfully intimate portrait of the condemned. We read the simple menus—”one jar of dill pickles,” “one bag of assorted Jolly Ranchers,” “one honey bun”—in search of clues. Brian Price, a former inmate in Huntsville Unit, prepared 218 final meals. He writes in his book Meals to Die For, “When I was preparing Kenneth Gentry’s last meal, I found myself trying to get into the mind of the man who would request butter beans for his last supper. I began to picture him as a child, sitting at the dinner table with his siblings as their mother spooned out a big helping of the buttery leguminous seeds to each of her children.”
Open records laws provided Green access to information about the last meals. By trial and error, she learned to ask for the prison public information officer, not the warden. “I began the phone call with ‘This is Professor Julie Green from Oregon State University, doing research on the final meals of death row inmates.’ I never mention I am an artist, a title I imagine might equate to troublemaker.”
“The Last Supper” has received criticism for painting an unduly sympathetic portrait of death-row inmates. It is easy to forget the heinous crimes while delighting in the whimsical drawings of blue hamburgers, blue potato chips, and blue watermelon. “In this ongoing project, there were several times I nearly quit,” Green says. “I think about the terrible crimes committed. I think about the victims. I think about fair punishment.” But her fervent opposition to the death penalty motivates her to continue painting.
The final meal requests offer a glimpse into the minds of those facing the ultimate punishment. On one secondhand plate, the artist painted only the words, “No final meal request because he remained hopeful to the end that he would not be executed.”