Exhibit at Bellevue Art Museum questions capital punishment through the tradition of last meals
At the Bellevue Art Museum, an exhibit called “The Last Supper” is a collection of 800 plates hand-painted by Oregon State University art professor Julie Green.
“They’re blue and white, cobalt blue paint on white ceramics, mostly porcelain, and they’re kiln fired,” Green said. “From a distance, it looks quite homey and beautiful, like something you might pull out of your grandmother’s china cabinet. Then you get closer and you find out the context of the piece.”
On each plate, Green has painted the last meal of an inmate executed in the United States, along with the date and the state.
“Oregon. September 6, 1996,” Green reads from one of the plates. “‘Five eggs, sunny side up, bacon strips, crisp. Stack of pancakes with syrup. Hot coffee, milk. Cold orange juice.’ The handwritten note from the inmate that I received by fax from the Oregon Department of Corrections ended with the writing, ‘I would appreciate the eggs served hot.’ And I thought, who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t want those eggs served hot?”
Green started the project in 1998.
“I read about last meals in the morning paper in Oklahoma in 1998. Oklahoma actually has the highest executions per capita, even higher than Texas,” Green said. “So it would say what execution had happened the night before, what the inmate was wearing, what were the facial expressions of the inmate as they were killed, and for the last meal they had six tacos, six glazed doughnuts, and six Cherry Cokes. So what inspired me was a question: Why do we have this tradition? Why is this in the paper? Why, why, why?”
Green grew up in a conservative, Republican family that supported capital punishment.
“But when I went to college and learned more about the legal system, I became concerned of margin of error,” Green said. “Black individuals are seven times more likely to receive a wrongful conviction of murder than whites. So that statistic alone keeps me painting the plates. I have an activist bend. I’m now opposed to capital punishment, as you might have gathered.”
You can learn a lot about a person based on what they choose for their last meal.
“Several asked for crackers and grape juice so they had communion. A number of the plates tell a story, like the inmate who had never had a birthday cake, so the prison inmates made a birthday cake for them for their last meal. That’s a huge story to me,” Green said. “It’s really sad and it speaks to the broader problem. This is an inmate who didn’t have a good chance or much support growing up; never had a birthday cake.”
Green started The Last Supper project over 20 years ago, and they dedicate half of each year to painting new blue and white plates. Green has painted 896 plates so far, but there have been 1,521 executions in the United States to date.
“I hope that it will spark conversation, research, and education about our legal system,” Green said about the project. “Most people do have an opinion about capital punishment. In fact, it’s interesting and encouraging to me that in 2019, for the first time, according to a Gallup Poll, the majority of Americans prefer life without parole to capital punishment. But I hope that people will look at the plates and have a conversation, and then think about it later and have an informed decision about capital punishment, whatever it is.”
Green says the project started as a meditation, a personal outlet to try and make sense of the tradition of last meals and why the public has such a morbid curiosity about them.
“I wish that I could say I have an answer, but I have no more answer than I did when I started. I’m still wondering why.”
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- Rachel Belle hosts the James Beard Award nominated podcast Your Last Meal and she's an Edward R Murrow award winning feature reporter. Follow Rachel on Instagram.