Six tacos, six glazed doughnuts and a Cherry Coke: That was the last meal of a man executed in Oklahoma in July 1999. Rendered in cobalt blue glaze on a white china plate the next year, it was the first in Julie Green’s decades-long art project, “The Last Supper,” which documented the final meals of death row prisoners around the country.
To Professor Green, who taught art at Oregon State University, their choices put a human face on an inhumane practice. Some requests were elaborate: fried sac-a-lait fish (otherwise known as white perch or crappie, it’s the state fish of Louisiana) topped with crawfish étouffée. And some were starkly mundane: two peanut butter cups and a Dr Pepper.
She planned to paint the meals until capital punishment was abolished, or until she had made 1,000 plates, whichever came first. In September, she painted her 1,000th plate, an oval platter with a single familiar image: the bottle of Coca-Cola requested by a Texas man in 1997.
She died a few weeks later, on Oct. 12, at her home in Corvallis, Ore., by physician-assisted suicide, which is permitted under Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act. She was 60. Her husband, the artist Clay Lohmann, said she had ovarian cancer.
Professor Green was teaching at the University of Oklahoma when she read the details of a recently executed man’s final meal in a local paper, The Norman Transcript. The menu’s homeyness — those glazed doughnuts — and its specificity made her think of all the meals she had prepared and shared with her family. The man had committed a horrific crime, but his food preferences humanized him.
“I’m a food person,” she told The New York Times in 2013. “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.”
She recalled phoning both the newspaper and the prison: Why were they printing this information? Both institutions, she said, replied with the same words: “The public wants to know.” Professor Green started saving such reports, which were still standard fare in some local newspapers, and doing more research: reaching out to prisons around the country, and investigating and painting the last meals of inmates throughout the century.
In 1917, a Montana man asked only for an apple. “I have a bad taste in my mouth,” he was reported as saying. In Mississippi in 1947, two Black teenagers asked for fried chicken and watermelon before they went to the electric chair. Professor Green painted one ornate platter for each boy.
Plates were an obvious medium through which to tell these stories. Professor Green initially thought she might work on cloth napkins, but, as she pointed out in an interview, “It takes a really long time to embroider a pile of French fries.”
Her work often drew from craft and handiwork, as does her husband’s: Mr. Lohmann makes intricate quilts that might upend traditional patterns (a recent piece in a jigsaw pattern is the height of a house) or reference social issues, like gun violence or black lung disease.
Texas, which has executed more prisoners than any other state in the country (573 since 1976, including three men this year), no longer allows special meal requests; its menus are drawn from standard prison fare.
But not all states are so rigid. In 2001 in Indiana, a prison granted an inmate’s request to have his mother make him chicken dumplings in the institution’s kitchen. Professor Green painted the word “Mother” on the platter that pays homage to that meal. Another Indiana inmate told prison officials that he’d never had a birthday cake, so they ordered him one, along with the pizza he had requested, which he shared with 15 family members and friends in 2007. Professor Green painted a cake that bristles with candles. In Georgia in 2009, a mentally disabled inmate asked for half a pecan pie. He didn’t understand the concept of execution, and he intended to save some of the pie to eat afterward.
In 2013, an Arizona man declined to choose his last meal, a not uncommon occurrence. Professor Green rendered his words in gothic lettering: “It’s just another meal, and there’s nothing special about the day to me.”
Since 2002, when Professor Green had already painted 152 plates, “The Last Supper” has toured the country. She intended the work to be seen as a whole, though it could be exhibited in parts. The exhibition, now containing 800 plates, is on view at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, Wash., until Jan. 23.
“Andy Warhol said in the future the artist will just point,” Professor Green said in a video talk in February. “I paint to point.”
Julie Lynn Green was born on Sept. 22, 1961, in Yokosuka, Japan. Her father, Frederick William Green, known as Bill, was an officer in the Navy. Her mother, Jane Louise (Nichols) Green, was a homemaker and later worked as an insurance underwriter.
Julie’s parents separated when she was 7, and she grew up with her mother in Des Moines. She studied graphic design at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where she earned a B.F.A. in 1983 and an M.F.A. in 1996.
In between receiving those degrees, she lived in New York City, where she worked for Time Life as a designer and at the Lone Star Cafe in Greenwich Village as a waitress. James Brown was the headliner at the club one night; when she served him his drink order, he signed her T-shirt with the words “Live in romance.” Years later, she memorialized his words in glow-in-the-dark acrylic for Fashion Plate, a series of paintings on gessoed paper plates. Professor Green was something of a fashion plate herself, often exuberantly dressed in vintage or handmade treasures, and often sporting a hat.
In addition to her husband, Professor Green is survived by her brother, Scott, and her mother, Jane Hamilton.
For the last three years, Professor Green had been painting a series that is both a corollary and a corrective to “The Last Supper.” “First Meals” documents the first meals of those who have been freed from prison after being wrongfully convicted.
Working with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Pritkzer School of Law, she reached out to recent exonerees like Jason Strong, who had been convicted of murder. His first meal, ordered at the diner near the prison where he had been incarcerated for 15 years, was a cheeseburger with bacon and mushrooms. As he waited for it to appear, he talked about how much he loved oranges, a fruit he had been denied while he was in prison. A waitress overheard him and brought one from the kitchen. He spent 40 minutes just holding it, turning it over and over in his hands.
Professor Green rendered the meal and that orange in delicate red brush strokes. For Marcel Brown, who enjoyed a corned beef sandwich at his mother’s house when he was released from prison, she painted the sandwich and his exclamation “Thank God I’m home.”