By Hangda Zhang
Marcellus Burt, a first-year theater student at Northwestern, felt his breath slow and his body tense when looking at the 600 plates that line the walls of the Block Museum, which illustrate the last meals of prison inmates on death row.
The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art opened a new exhibition, The Last Supper, on Saturday, May 9. Julie Green, who painted the plates, attended its opening and spoke about her creative process.
In 1999, Green read a description of the menu of a death row inmate’s meal request in a newspaper in Oklahoma. She was amazed that people wanted to know these details. Since then Green has collected a description of last meal requests. She realized everyone had foods in common, and the foods they requested told her a lot about them, such as what their moms cooked, where they were from or what grew in their hometown.
“The whole project is the meditation about a system of justice that I think is flawed,” said Green, an art professor at Oregon State University.
Thirty-three states in the U.S. use the death penalty and some provide last meals which the death row inmates request.
Green was inspired by one of the art classes she taught to match media with content, and she decided to draw the last meals on second-hand ceramic plates with cobalt blue mineral paint. Mineral paints do not come in bright red for safety reasons when firing in 1400-degree kilns, and because the colors Green could use were limited, she decided to use only blue for its beauty and historical tradition.
“Something struck me was that none of the foods would actually have been digested at all,” said Liam McShane, a junior at Northwestern.
McShane said the identifiable and pleasing depiction of the foods makes the paintings more biting and painful, because the ornate plates were light, delicate objects while at the same time representing a man’s death.
Green’s paintings not only evoked visitor’s thoughts on capital punishment, but also inspired artistic production. Burt said he would like to find a play with concepts similar to that of Green’s paintings or create a play to raise awareness.
“Giving them very delicious meals and killing them to me is like –I don’t want to say it is slaughter—but to some extent, similar to an animal getting filled with foods and slaughtered,” Burt said. “It is just disgusting to me.”
The plate exhibit does more than display food.
“Those of us who live in the states that don’t use death penalty aren’t really connected to death penalty,” said Heather Schoenfeld, Assistant Professor of Legal Studies and Education and Social Policy at NU.
“The exhibits like this are good to remind us that the death penalty still exists and it is common in handful states in United States, which we should be aware of,” she said.
With this exhibit, Green questions why we have the tradition of last meals and why capital punishment is still legal in many states in the U.S. After growing up in a family that supported capital punishment, she turned against to it.
“The fact that we could execute an innocent person when so many people have been exonerated because of innocence changed my position,” Green said.“It is not so much what you did but rather who you are that determines capital conviction.”
Green’s long-term hope for the project is to stop capital punishment. Only then will she stop drawing last meals of death row inmates.