Indiana 05 May 2007 Pizza and birthday cake shared with 15 family and friends. A prison official said “He told us he never had a birthday cake so we ordered a birthday cake for him.”

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Contemporary artist Julie Green’s work depicts last meal requests of U.S. death row inmates.

One inmate requested only a can of Coke with a cigarette. Another asked for his mother’s ravioli and chicken dumplings. Yet another ordered pork chops, eggs, toast, cherry pie, butter pecan ice cream, orange juice and milk.

These are death row inmates’ last meal requests, all part of a spring 2015 exhibition presented by Northwestern University’s Block Museum, which through these meals, examines capital punishment and free will.

“The Last Supper,” features 600 white ceramic plates decorated with cobalt blue mineral paint to depict these last meal requests. It opens May 9 and will remain on view to the public through Aug. 9.

Every plate in “The Last Supper” is accompanied by a description of the meal request, date and state. Without naming the inmate or crime, the meals highlight the human dimension of capital punishment. The plates function as anonymous portraits that when grouped together suggest a memorial to lost life on a mass scale. Ms. Green, a professor of fine arts at Oregon State University, has been painting plates for 15 years and is committed to creating 50 each year until capital punishment is abolished.

Green’s Block Museum exhibition has particular salience at Northwestern, as the Northwestern University School of Law was influential in the eradication of the death penalty in Illinois. The Block is partnering with the School of Law, among others, to address issues raised by the exhibition.  

Block Medley of Programs
The Block Museum has organized a schedule of spring programs that invite thoughtful contemplation of the criminal justice system, capital punishment and the role of media in public perception of innocence and guilt. Northwestern University School of Law, which played a critical role in the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois, is a primary partner. A 1998 conference sponsored by the Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Center on Wrongful Convictions
featured 29 exonerated death row inmates giving voice to errors of the system. This event piqued the interest of then-Gov. George Ryan, who later declared a moratorium on the death penalty.

“‘The Last Supper’ powerfully challenges the notion that we share no connection with those caught in the system. Julie Green’s depictions of the last meals of the condemned movingly demonstrate the profound connections among all human beings that arise from our common memories and experiences of food.” said
Robert C. Owen, Northwestern clinical professor of law.

Creating the Exhibition
Ms. Green reads local news for bulletins of executions and bases her compositions on these journalistic reports, which are often spare in detail. She also researches historical instances of last meal requests on death row to create her annual 50 plates. Her process is consistent – a thrift-store plate, an execution report and blue cobalt glaze fired by technical advisor Antoni Acock – but the ingredients change every time. An order of prime rib and lobster might speak to a last grasp at luxury, while ravioli and dumplings prepared by the mother of the condemned shows desires for comfort and family.

“The Last Supper” underscores the peculiar, socially complex tradition of offering a last meal before execution, while exposing the uneven practices and policies of the state-administered capital punishment system. For instance, while cigarettes are not allowed in prisons, a New York inmate received a pack of Pall Malls for a last meal in 1963; while in 2011, after a Texas inmate failed to eat a particularly lavish meal, the state ended the policy of honoring last meal requests.

The State of Capital Punishment
Ms. Green’s exhibition comes at a time when capital punishment is making headlines for waning popular support, failed executions and controversial drug combinations. As of 2013, 35 states and the federal government allow the death penalty.

Public support for capital punishment fell from 78 percent in 1996 to 55 percent in 2013, according to the Pew Research Center. The number of executions has also fallen in recent years, to 39 in 2013, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2015, the Block is a resource that uses art as a springboard to explore issues and ideas that matter to our lives today. It is free and open to all, and visitors are invited to participate in experiential learning opportunities that bridge the classroom and the world beyond the campus.

Funding for the project has been generously provided by Chicago artist Angela Lustig and Northwestern alumnus Dale E. Taylor.

The Block Museum is located at 40 Arts Circle Drive on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus.Admission to the museum is always free. Parking in the garage and lot directly south of the museum is free all day on weekends and after 4 p.m. on weekdays. For more information, visit blockmuseum.northwestern.edu.