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Grieving Julie Green: “I paint to point”

Sarah Sentilles meditates on art and grief by remembering the life and work of artist Julie Green.

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Editor’s Note: Oregon artist Julie Green died in October of 2021. A professor at Oregon State University, Green is best known in the art world for her decades-long project The Last Supper in which she depicted the last meals of death row inmates on ceramic plates. The author of this essay, Sarah Sentilles, is a friend of Green’s and former Oregon resident. Sentilles’s latest book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, centers on parenting in the foster care system.

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In November 2020, I had the privilege of having Julie Green as a participant in one of my Artist Statement Workshops. Green generated one of the most exquisite pieces of writing I’ve seen in almost any workshop I’ve taught. The form of Green’s statement was based on something called “lining out,” which Green taught me is a call and response widely used in English churches starting in 1644, and later in American gospel music. Green wrote, “The precentor provides words and space so that even the illiterate can respond in song.”

I miss Julie Green deeply. I feel Green’s absence. So many of us have experienced so much loss in the last two years. Grief sometimes feels to me like an exercise in call and response – or an exercise in call and call and call and silence. To celebrate Julie’s life and art, I offer my own version of “lining out” – a conversation between a griever (me – but it could just as easily be you) and art.

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BEREAVED: How do you represent absence?

ART: Make a mark.

BEREAVED: How do you represent loss?

ART: Make a mark.

BEREAVED: Will that be your answer to all my questions?

ART: Remember when you learned that your foster daughter would be returned to her biological mother?

BEREAVED: I could not forget.

ART: Remember what Julie did?

BEREAVED: Sent me a small, hand-made, laminated card. A prayer card. A prayer collage.

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ART: We don’t think Julie would use that language.

BEREAVED: A hand-made card with an image of a bee and the word creativity. For Darling C, Julie inscribed on the back, for our foster daughter.

ART: Julie made a mark.

BEREAVED: Tell me about Julie’s garden.

ART: Julie wanted to talk about art.

BEREAVED: Food is Julie’s art too.

ART: Julie’s husband Clay built the artist the most beautiful kitchen.

BEREAVED: When I visited Julie at home for the first time, Julie made me lunch and sent me home with a suitcase filled with just-picked tarragon from the garden and instructions for how to make tarragon infused vinegar, a recipe included in Julie’s book, Picnic Brownies Make Life Easy. At home, I rinsed the tarragon, packed it in a glass jar, added red wine vinegar, and topped the mixture with a clean flat rock. I have it still.

Julie Green, Anna Fidler, Sarah Sentilles. Snapshot from 2018.

ART: In some communities, family is formed by eating food grown on the same land.

BEREAVED: Growing up, Green never ate alone. Eating was a shared activity.

ART: Most people on death row eat their last meal alone or with a guard.

Bereaved: Green thought about that when painting.

ART: Thought about it when painting 1000 Last Supper paintings, the final meals of people on death row.

BEREAVED: Dedication. Commitment. Green planned to paint this series until death penalty was abolished. A series to make a point.

ART: Not to make a point. To point. Green liked to quote Andy Warhol: “The artist of the future will just point.”

BEREAVED: Julie Green: “I paint to point.”

ART: Look and look and look.

BEREAVED: Don’t look away from the brokenness.

ART: Julie came from a family of repairers. People who knew how to mend and heal, how to transform broken objects into something useful again.

BEREAVED: “I could sew before I could walk,” I heard Julie say.

ART: A maker, through and through.

BEREAVED: I am blue.

Julie Green, install view of An Embarassment of Dishes. Courtesy of the Julie Green Estate, image by Mario Gallucci.

ART: That feels right. Flow blue, or flown blue, was Green’s favorite historical ceramic technique – blue glaze painted or transferred on white ceramic that smears during firing.

BEREAVED: “What likely began as an accident becomes a goal,” Green told me.

ART: Accidents, mistakes, misunderstandings. To be human is to be fallible.

BEREAVED: That troubled Julie, the “margin for error in all judicial processes.”

ART: Humans’ capacity for misunderstanding. For getting it wrong. Paired with the finality of execution. Disaster.

BEREAVED: An error that cannot be undone. That cannot be repaired.

ART: To know what someone ate before being executed humanized death-row prisoners for Green.  

BEREAVED: Texas no longer allows special meal requests. Its menus are drawn from standard prison fare.

ART: On one platter Green painted Mother. In Indiana, in 2001, a prison granted an inmate’s last meal request to have his mother make him chicken dumplings in the prison’s kitchen.

BEREAVED: Julie thought about the victims, the families, the crime. Julie wondered, Why this last meal ritual?

BEREAVED: Sometimes, there is a first meal.

ART: To learn what people ate when they were released from prison after years of being wrongly convicted, after they were exonerated . . . That series, First Meals? Green imagined it might be an antidote to so many years painting last meals, but it wasn’t.

BEREAVED: In Blueberries Handfed to Julie Rea (2018), one woman feeds another blueberries. What food would you eat first?

ART: Paint on a plate.

BEREAVED: Green expected creating that work would feel hopeful, but found it crushing. “All that lost time,” Green said.

ART: The paintings are made on Tyvek, a material you’d use to protect buildings during construction.

BEREAVED: A material you’d use to protect homes.

ART: Exonerees wanted to go home. Some worried they wouldn’t find it.

Julie Green, Blueberries from the series First Meal. Courtesy Julie Green Estate, image by Mario Gallucci.

BEREAVED: Once, when we were talking about a different project, An Embarrassment of Dishes, Julie told me, “We can learn from the objects in our homes. Especially from objects we didn’t choose.” Green painted over the original pattern of a Noritake dinner service for 12, inherited from Julie’s grandmother. On the back of each dish, Green painted words that captured moments of discomfort. Confessions, injury, humiliation, and secrets exposed.

ART: Julie’s grandmother had two sets of china – Japanese china designed to look British, and British china designed to look Japanese.

BEREAVED: Like Green’s childhood pink sponge curlers meant to make straight hair curly.

ART: These household objects “reveal something about the human longing to be other than we are,” Green said.

BEREAVED: We all mistakenly try to make others other than they are. We mis-see and misunderstand – a kind of violence. Art like Green’s helps us practice careful looking, helps us slow down to remember that what we think we see is not all there is to see. Green called the First Meal paintings “pennants of loss.” They look like flags.

ART: From a country most of you pretend doesn’t exist.

BEREAVED: Green did not pretend. Julie practiced close observation of contemporary society.

ART: “Our creative acts are self-portraits,” Green said.

BEREAVED: I’ve been looping a video I found on Julie’s website – how to fold a shirt . I slow the clip way down. Watch again and again. But I can’t yet do it.

ART: Practice.

BEREAVED: Every part of Julie’s life had intention. That’s what I love about the best artists. They hold themselves accountable for this choice or that choice, this medium or that medium, for the effects of their making. At the same time, they imagine the world could be different. They introduce the new, with all its possibility.

ART: Perhaps art is the opposite of death row.

BEREAVED: Last Supper. “Take, eat,” the story tells us Jesus said. “This is my body.”

ART: Then he handed his friends pieces of bread.

BEREAVED: We both used to be Christian. I sometimes wonder what Christianity would look like if there were no resurrection, if the story about Jesus ended where some of the gospels end – with the empty tomb, with a grieving woman in a garden looking for the person she loves, who is gone.

ART: Yours is not a culture that knows how to be with death.

BEREAVED: Would this world look different if we knew how to sit with loss?

ART: Just the dark and open mouth of an empty cave.

BEREAVED: In 2-pack Trauma (2017), Green painted on cardboard boxes that used to hold vinegar – acrylic and day glow, small oval scenes depicting personal, traumatic events. The work plays with the idea of confession – the brand is Four Monks, vinegar can be used to clean and disinfect, and the date stamps suggest repetition, ritual. What does forgiveness look like?

ART: And who can grant it?

BEREAVED: I went back through Julie’s emails to me. In one Julie wrote, I have two new roommates. An air conditioner Clay put my studio. AC, the good roommate. And a challenging one, pain. Trying to paint my way through

ART: Julie stayed with us.

BEREAVED: In another, Julie wrote, New health concerns here. Please send a thought. Mostly living present, painting, walking the coast with Clay, talking while jumping on Anna’s trampoline.

ART: Flow, flown, fly.

BEREAVED: Julie signed some of those emails with this: Love till the end of numbers.

ART: Green had a way with words. With everything.

BEREAVED: I just found a recording Julie sent me that, somehow, heartbreakingly, I didn’t listen to before. Julie had read about the baby robins in our yard in my memoir Stranger Care, and told me another fledgling story, about two birds she and Clay had been watching, blue jays they named Wanda and Wally.

ART: Even the birds in their yard are blue.

BEREAVED: They’d been watching the parents, Wanda and Wally, feed their fledglings. All that labor. All those flights back and forth from Julie and Clay’s compost pile. Then one of the fledglings died. Julie was worried it was symbolic. “And then I read your robin story and it gave me hope,” Julie says on the recording. “Maybe there was more than just that one – maybe with all that effort, another fledgling survived.”

ART: You can still hear Julie’s voice.

BEREAVED: As Julie talks on the recording, I can hear a clock ticking.

ART: The clock is always ticking. Make a mark.


SOURCES

Kirk Johnson, “Dish by Dish, Art of Last Meals”

Penelope Green, “Julie Green, Artist Who Memorialized Inmates’ Last Suppers, Dies at 60″

Scott Simon, “Artist Julie Green, who depicted humanity of death row inmates, has died”

Julie Green, Artist Talk at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, March 2013

Sarah Sentilles, “Julie Green: Flown”

Sarah Sentilles is the author of several books, including Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours and Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN-America Award for Creative Nonfiction. She is the co-founder of The Alliance of Idaho, which protects the human rights of immigrants.

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3 Responses

  1. Thank you for this lovely tribute to Julie. It is still so shocking to know that she is gone. When we were Fellows at the Center for Humanities, she had an exhibition and I bought her painting “THE NEXT MRS.” I am not sure what it means but it called to me. She told me that Clay made all her frames. She lives on in her work. Thank you.

  2. This is a beautiful tribute, thank you for sharing it.
    The final 200 plates in The Last Supper will be on display at the Corvallis Museum beginning this Friday, if you would like to share with your readers who want to see some of Julie’s work in person.

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