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New horizons for Julie Green’s ‘Last Supper’ and ‘First Meal’ projects

The Oregon State University painter passed away in 2021. In 2023, The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art acquired 'Last Supper' and the Oregon State University Press published a new catalog based on 'First Meal.'

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Julie Green (they/them/theirs) was at core a political artist: a passionate advocate for human rights and for everyday justice. “I paint to point,” Green once said, paraphrasing Andy Warhol. Much of Green’s work directly points at systemic corruption and cruelty. Nowhere is this more evident than in two of their most important works, Last Supper and First Meal.

Though Green died in 2021, at age 60 of terminal cancer, both Last Supper and First Meal were in the news in late fall of 2023: Last Supper because of a museum acquisition and First Meal because of a catalog published by Oregon State University Press. The series are intimately related: Last Supper depicts the last meal request of death row prisoners facing execution; First Meal focuses instead on exonerees and on the circumstances surrounding the first food they ate after being released from prison. 

arrangement of regular rows of blue and white plates from Julie Green's Last Supper series
2021 Installation view of Julie Green’s Last Supper at the Bellevue Art Museum

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas announced the acquisition of Green’s Last Supper series at the end of October. Green pursued Last Supper for 20 years. Each work is a ceramic dinner plate delicately painted in cobalt blue on an assortment of found porcelain. Each is based on the last meal request of a death row prisoner facing execution. Some inmates had no meal request; others’ requests were not granted, but all are recorded and part of public record. Green’s plan was to continue the project until the abolishment of the death penalty in the United States, but the series concluded at 1,000 plates because of Green’s illness. 

Green had intended that Last Supper be given in its entirety to a collecting institution and, thanks to the museum’s related lending program, Art Bridges, the Last Supper will travel as Green had also hoped. Traveling will enable Last Supper to be shown in a variety of places, often in states where the death penalty is still on the books and enforced. Texas has the dubious honor of being the home state of 355 of the 1000 plates in the series. Hundreds of prisoners have been executed there in recent years. 

Food is also at the heart of First Meal, another project Green brought to a close in 2021, that is the subject of the October 2023 catalog. Conceived originally as a respite from the grimness of Last Supper, the paintings in First Meal focus on the experiences of exonerees: specifically, on the circumstances surrounding the first food they ate after being released from prison. But because they are based on the narratives of wrongfully convicted people, the paintings necessarily address the mechanics and brutality of a flawed, racist, and monetized “criminal justice system” and corruption that flows from the streets to the courts and to the prisons. 

book cover with red and blue china-patterned plates
Cover of First Meal by Julie Green and Kirk Johnson published by Oregon State University Press in 2023

Green had once imagined that the “happy ending” of release might be a joyous subject matter, but found the exonerees’ histories of false evidence, sadistic detectives, judges on the take, along with the years and years of wrongful imprisonment difficult to process. In contrast to the uniformity of Last Supper, whose plates, displayed in a grid, conjure a row of prison cells or a grim registry of death, Green conceived the paintings in First Meal as stand-alone objects, each measures about 4 feet, either in depth or width. “I am thinking of First Meal paintings as flags, as pennants of loss”, Green wrote in an Instagram post in December 2018.  And yet, these banners contain hope as well as pain: the selection of a meal is just the first of many choices, often overwhelming, these exonerees were suddenly free to make again. 

The First Meal paintings are partially based on responses to a questionnaire written by Green and attorney Karen Daniel from Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and sent to exonerees. (Green partnered both with The Center on Wrongful Convictions and the Innocence Project, and sometimes followed up with further interviews.)  The survey’s main questions were: “Where did you eat your first meal after release? Who did you eat with? What did you order/have? Is there any particular reason you wanted the food you ordered or had? Anything else you want us to know?”

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red and white painted image of cars infant of a low-slung square building with the title "J.B. Burgers" on it. An image of a hamburger with flowers on the bun tops the building
Julie Green, J.B. Burgers, 2021. 48.5 x 36.5 in., Acrylic, cloth, thread, paper, 24k and glow-in-the-dark paint on Tyvek (photo: Clay Lohmann)

After some experiments, Green chose Tyvek as a support for the series. Its archival qualities, smooth painting surface, and its associations with protection in the form of home insulation and protective gear were equally appealing. The earliest of these banners is simply painted in blue acrylic paint, in an homage to the Spode dinnerware that has long inspired Green. But, as the series grew, so did Green’s addition of varied media to the Tyvek support: glow-in-the-dark paint and collaged elements that include fabric, buttons, found embroidery, beads, palladium leaf, paper, even a bag of garam masala for an exoneree who had long craved spices. (The fabric was often provided by Green’s spouse and fellow artist Clay Lohmann, whose suggestions and advice were a bedrock of their 30+-year partnership, as Green notes in the catalog acknowledgements.)

The First Meal catalog was conceived in conjunction with an exhibition at the Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery, New Jersey City University. The book combines Green’s brief comments on 25 of the 30 paintings with more lengthy background essays by reporter Kirk Johnson. Johnson met Green in 2013 when he wrote a review of their work for the New York Times, and the two stayed in touch over the years. For his essays, Johnson drew upon his background, which included stints as a New York City crime reporter, and researched each of the exonerees’ cases to provide information on why the subjects were wrongfully accused and what evidence led to their release, often after decades behind bars. 

The catalog is thus written from two perspectives—that of the artist and that of a journalist whose interest in the work perhaps stems as much from its content as from its aesthetic merits. As the introductory essay, whose author is not credited, explains, Green and Johnson were not interested in producing an art-historical book or a disquisition on criminal justice. Instead, they saw the publication as “a spotlight of art and explanation capturing the moment of a first meal, or an exoneree’s journey before or after that meal.” A reproduction of each painting in full as well as photos of details accompany the text. 

 The paintings are large and filled with symbolic references, mentioned in Green’s writing but often hard to find in either the full-scale reproductions or the detail illustrations. I looked in vain for the artist’s fingerprint signature, for instance; and could not find “a broad, bright yellow feather” that Green writes of attaching to Mom’s Rainbow Trout (p.61). 

blue and white painting with a small child figure in an antique looking dress next to a facade of an old house with triangle roof
Julie Green, Aunt’s House, 2021. 49 x 38.5 in. Acrylic, Illinois state flag and other fabric, blue wig, thread, and glow-in-the-dark paint on Tyvek (photo: Clay Lohmann)

Green’s comments are fascinating as they provide insight into methods as well as the origins and complexities of the compositions themselves. The writing feels spontaneous: I could hear Julie Green’s voice as I read about the challenges each painting presented and the sometimes arduous process of getting it right, making a work that did justice to its subject and using imagination to fill in gaps in the narrative or facts that weren’t provided. Thus, an exoneree’s aunt becomes, in Green’s “nonphotographic vision,” an invented porcelain doll, painted in blue and wearing a blue wig found in the artist’s basement and glued to the painting (Aunt’s House).

As a child, Green loved “find-the-hidden-object” books and works in First Meal are filled with a vocabulary of symbols specific to each narrative. One can find state flags, flowers, birds, fast food logos, and snippets of text. “Now, find the years wrongfully imprisoned in glow-in-the-dark paint. Find the exoneree in the group. Find the fingerprint,” reads Green’s commentary on the painting entitled J.B. Burgers. Green signed the paintings with their fingerprint: both as a reference to the association of fingerprints with crime scenes and booking into jail, but also, more importantly, as an insistence on the uniqueness of each exoneree and their story.  Because J.B.–Jonathan Barr– released in 2011, didn’t name the Chicago restaurant where he had his first burger, Green invented one for him— “as unique to him as the arches, loops, and whorls of an index finger”—and situated it on a busy street, its details painted in washes of red acrylic. A giant cheeseburger collaged in patterned fabric and paper floats above the restaurant marquee, like an apparition, a meal imagined.

red and white plates with central landscape and flower & bird pattern surrounding
Julie Green, Holding Orange for Jason Strong, 2018. 47 x 35 in. Acrylic on Tyvek (photo: Mario Galluci)

There were many times when Green’s imagination could not fully comprehend the enormous sadness in the stories revealed through the questionnaires. “How do you depict absence? How do you depict loss?” Green asked after reading Jason Strong’s reaction to receiving his first orange in 13 years (Holding Orange for Jason Strong). He simply held it for several minutes, turning it, smelling it, feeling its bumpy skin. Finding it all but impossible to depict absence, Green eventually chose to paint presence: an orange cradled in the palm of a hand.

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In the essay devoted to acknowledgments at the end of the book, Green emphasizes the contributions of others to the project, echoing the captions accompanying First Meal paintings on the artist’s website: “This first meal painting of a wrongfully convicted person is a collaboration with the exoneree, the Innocence Project, Center on Wrongful Convictions and Julie Green.” Each participant received a digital print of their painting as well as an honorarium, and Green shared proceeds with the Center on Wrongful Convictions. 

Green also used this final essay to write about their deepening empathy for the wrongfully convicted. When they began First Meal, Green questioned: “Besides a call for social justice, who was I to make these paintings?” (p.141). But the course of their cancer, first diagnosed in late 2019, combined with COVID to force them into lockdown and an awareness that their increasingly dire health updates had given them a death sentence. With that came a deeper understanding of the exonerees’ stories. Studying the paintings and reading the text with that knowledge gives one an even deeper appreciation of Green’s strengths, both as an artist and as a fervent advocate for justice. Perhaps that is the biggest gift of the publication.

***

Like many in the art world, I knew Julie Green—intensely, if not well. Our first real conversation came shortly after their cancer diagnosis, as I was finishing up a year of chemo, surgery, and radiation for breast cancer. So, we had a bit to talk about. Anna Fidler and I went to the first chemo treatment and I drove Julie home on Valentine’s Day, 2019, intending to be the chauffeurs for all subsequent treatments. But COVID happened, and I never saw Julie again. I sent “love till the end of numbers”—a phrase my mother had used. There was so much more to learn. This book helps, but it was hard to write about. I don’t have Julie’s fortitude. PFR

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Prudence Roberts recently retired from Portland Community College, where she taught art history and was curator of the collections and gallery at the Rock Creek campus. Prior to that, she spent 14 years as Curator of American art at the Portland Art Museum. She continues to work as a freelance writer and curator and serves on the boards of Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts and the Multnomah County Cultural Coalition.

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2 Responses

  1. The third sentence uses she/her pronouns for the artist after indicating pronouns are they/them/theirs two sentences before. That should probably be fixed.

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