Remembering Julie Green, Who Painted the Last Meals of Death Row Inmates
The artist, who died this month at age 60, sought to emphasize condemned prisoners’ humanity
When living in Oklahoma in the 1990s, Julie Green began their mornings by opening up the newspaper and reading about the executions of death row inmates. Details of prisoners’ last meals were particularly striking to Green, who was then teaching painting at the University of Oklahoma. “That is really weird information,” they thought. “So specific. So personal.”
These final food requests lingered with Green, who died on October 12 the age of 60. They began collecting clippings of execution notices and painting prisoners’ last meals onto ceramic plates—the start of a decades-long project that the artist titled The Last Supper.
Rendered in vibrant cobalt blue pigment, each plate offered a poignant, enigmatic glimpse into the life of someone who died at the hands of the state. One prisoner asked that his mother be allowed into the prison kitchen to cook him German ravioli and chicken dumplings; accordingly, Green painted the word “MOTHER” on the plate depicting his last meal. Another wanted a single bag of Jolly Ranchers. And a third requested a birthday cake because he’d never had one before.
“For me, a final meal request humanizes death row,” wrote Green in a 2020 artist’s statement. “Menus provide clues on region, race and economic background. A family history becomes apparent when [the] Indiana Department of Corrections adds, ‘He told us he never had a birthday cake so we ordered a birthday cake for him.’”
Green, who used gender-neutral pronouns, died after a battle with ovarian cancer, reports Jacoba Urist for the Art Newspaper. They had planned to continue The Last Supper until capital punishment was abolished in the United States, but in light of their cancer diagnosis, announced last month that the project would end at 1,000 plates.
Green was born in 1961 in Yokosuka, Japan, where their father was stationed with the Navy. According to Harrison Smith of the Washington Post, their family ultimately settled in Des Moines. Green earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas, where they studied illustration and design. For the past two decades, they taught art at Oregon State University.
Prior to Green’s time in Oklahoma, which had the nation’s highest per capita execution rate in 2020, they had spent little time reflecting on the ritual of last meals. But they came to see the final food requests of death row inmates as “a window into the soul in an hour of crisis,” wrote the New York Times’ Kirk Johnson in a 2013 profile of Green.
The artist recreated last meals served to prisoners across the country. Many were dutifully recorded in minute detail: Buffalo steak, a bucket of KFC white meat–only chicken, sugar-free pecan pie, sugar-free black walnut ice cream, Indian pan-fried bread and whole milk. Barbecued ribs, French fries, Mountain Dew and apple pie. Pizza Hut pizza with bacon, beef and mushrooms, plus strawberry cheesecake and Pepsi.
Green also researched and painted the final meals served to death row prisoners of decades past, like the fried chicken and watermelon given to two Black teenagers who were sent to the electric chair in Mississippi in 1947. If inmates were not offered a special last meal—Texas, for instance, put an end to the practice in 2011—Green painted a standard prison cafeteria menu stamped with the words “No Choice.”
The Last Supper was not without its critics. Some accused Green of capitalizing on the death penalty, though Green said the project was not-for-profit, according to the Times. Others felt they were overly sympathetic with people who had committed terrible crimes. Still, Green was deliberate in their efforts to show the humanity of death row inmates.
“I thought of meals that I’d prepared, or meals that I’d had with my family,” they said, “and I realized that we all have food in common. That this inmate who was just executed is a person who eats and has food requests and certain foods that they like.”
In 2018, Green began working on a related project, First Meal, which saw them paint vibrant depictions of the meals eaten by exonerated inmates upon their release from prison. The series began with the first post-prison meal of Kristine Bunch, who was incarcerated for 17 years after being wrongfully convicted of murdering her 3-year-old son. She opted for “scallops, cheese grits, hummus, vegetables and champagne,” the Washington Post reports.
“The meal, of course, is a joyful moment,” Green told Erica Commisso of Rolling Stone in 2019, “but it’s no balance for the wrongful conviction.”
Indeed, after more than two decades spent reflecting on prisons and prisoners through the lens of food, Green continued to grapple with difficult questions about the criminal justice system.
“Why do we have this tradition of final meals, I wondered, after seeing a 1999 request for six tacos, six glazed donuts, and a cherry Coke,” they wrote in their artist’s statement. “Twenty-one years later, I still wonder.”