The idea for “The First Meal” project came nearly 20 years ago. Artist Julie Green had just launched the series “The Last Supper,” in which the final meals of death row inmates were painted in cobalt blue on china plates. Green pledged to create 50 more plates each year until the death penalty was abolished.
A colleague had a different suggestion: Wouldn’t it be fitting to illustrate a first meal when that day arrived?
“Some years past, and we still have capital punishment,” Green said by phone from Corvallis, Ore., where the artist teaches at Oregon State University. “So I thought I should start this new project.”
Green reached out to the Center on Wrongful Convictions, part of Northwestern University’s School of Law. Last year the center helped to send out surveys to the exonerated, asking about their first meal after release.
This time the artist decided to paint with acrylic on Tyvek, an industrial roofing material. The combination allowed a far wider range of colors and a larger scale of work. “Wrongful convictions are such a huge problem, so I wanted the pieces to be bigger,” Green said.
Three nearly banner-sized works from the “The First Meal” series are featured with about 800 plates from “The Last Supper” in the exhibition “Julie Green: Flown Blue” at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona. This mid-career survey, running through Feb. 23, includes the largest number of plates shown to date.
Green has been using art to spark change in the justice system, museum Director Beth Ann Gerstein said. “The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, and it is the only country in North and South America that still executes prisoners.”
The artist believes that what people choose for these critical meals tells a story and helps to humanize them. Many meals in “The Last Supper” include things you might expect, like steak, fries and ice cream. But even the mundane might prove to be poignant. One man executed in Indiana requested that his mother be allowed into the prison kitchen to help prepare his last meal: German ravioli and chicken dumpling. The word “mother” has been added to this plate.
A painting in the new series is inspired by an exonerated man who went for a cheeseburger with his mother and attorneys. The waitress overheard how he had yearned for a fresh orange while in prison, so she brought him one. Green’s panel shows a cheeseburger and a hand holding the fruit.
Green has completed about a dozen “First Meal” works and plans to make 20 more, although time is limited. The artist remains committed to “The Last Supper,” and that will be an ongoing project for the foreseeable future.