The last meal of the last person executed by Washington state was pizza, apple pie and root beer.
Julie Green has painted the meal in cobalt blue on a seven-inch dessert plate, white with a blue border: An arc of pizza with 13 pepperoni; a lattice-topped pie with a scalloped edge, an icy glass of soda.
It hangs at the Bellevue Arts Museum, in the 66th column of plates, fourth from the bottom.
Green, an artist and professor at Oregon State University, spent the last two decades painting the last meals of people executed in American prisons.
One plate per meal. Each hand-painted, each distinctive, all in cobalt blue.
She said she would continue painting them until America abolished the death penalty or until she reached 1,000 plates. She finished her 1,000th plate in September. She died one month later, on Oct. 12, using physician aid in dying. She had ovarian cancer. She was 60.
Green’s work, “The Last Supper,” is on display at Bellevue Arts Museum. The first 800 plates, hung in 67 columns up to 18 plates high, cascade down a wall in the museum’s atrium.
There are steaks and chicken and shrimp and ribs and eggs and chocolate cake and avocados.
There are Pizza Hut boxes, a bag of Jolly Ranchers, a six-pack of Coors, Cheez Doodles, Heinz ketchup.
There is stuffed lobster and there are packs of Camel cigarettes.
Each plate, an individual, now dead, at the hands of the state.
“A lot of my work is to document something that may have gone unnoticed,” Green said in an artist’s presentation earlier this year.
Green was living in Oklahoma in 1999 when she read a short article in the local paper, The Norman Transcript, about a man who had been executed the day before.
He “blinked three times and let out a breath through puffed cheeks,” the article said. “His foot stopped shaking. His eyes slowly dimmed, became glossy and closed to a crescent.”
Two paragraphs later, the article noted that he’d asked for a final meal of three chicken thighs, 10 or 15 shrimp, tater tots with ketchup, two slices of pecan pie, strawberry ice cream, honey and biscuits and a Coke.
Before reading that, Green said, she hadn’t realized people on death row got a final meal.
She’d previously thought of capital punishment as something like climate change or hunger, an abstract concern to her, but something about which she didn’t know what to do.
“I read that menu in the newspaper and the specifics of that request and I thought of meals that I’d prepared and meals I’d had with my family and I realized that we all have food in common,” she said in a short documentary in 2012. “This inmate who was just executed is a person who eats and has food requests and certain foods that they like and even foods that tell us about where they‘re from.”
She started collecting media accounts of last meals, and asking prisons for the information. She wouldn’t read about the crimes, just the meals.
She thinks of the list of meals she collected as “sort of the saddest poem in the world. It’s numbing, and there is a weight to it.”
For the next 21 years, she spent half the year painting last meals and half the year working on other projects.
In Bellevue, the plates high on the wall are all but unintelligible, just glints of blue and white. There are so many of them, they’re stacked so high and so close, they rattle gently with the museum’s HVAC system. It’s too much to take in.
Approaching from a distance, they look like classic blue and white English china.
“You think you’re looking at something that’s very blasé and very familiar and comforting and then it’s something that really jolts you once you actually understand what you’re looking at,” said Lane Eagles, associate curator at the museum.
“I think the idea is to sort of lull you into this sense of comfort so that you’re sort of disarmed and that that’s when the reality that every single plate is a dead person hits you.”
Not everyone gets an individualized last meal, Green learned.
There are four columns of plates in the middle of the exhibition, all of them rectangular, not round. Green has painted them into segments, like a cafeteria tray. On one: Salisbury steak, steamed rice, brown gravy, mixed vegetables, corn, pinto beans, sliced bread.
Texas, which executes more people than any other state, offers only what the prison is serving that day.
“Texas standard meal,” it says, on the bottom of each plate.
“Nothing is harder to paint than blue macaroni and cheese, nothing is more pleasant to paint than an apple,” Green said.
Some plates are painted with words, not images, to represent a meal not taken.
“No final meal request.”
“Confidential upon request.”
“Fasting – made no request – refused to eat.”
Many states limit meal requests to what is in the prison kitchen, Green wrote in text accompanying the exhibit. California allows restaurant takeout up to $50. Oklahoma allows $15, down from $20 in the 1990s, she wrote.
In its last six months, the Trump administration executed 13 people, more than triple the number that the federal government had executed in the prior 60 years.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor called it an “expedited spree of executions.”
Green couldn’t get the details of those last meals. So she just painted the email refusal.
Green’s across-the-street neighbor in Corvallis, Oregon, would buy the plates for her at secondhand shops and rummage sales. After painting, each plate was fired in a kiln at 1,400 degrees.
At Bellevue, it took two weeks to hang them all on the wall. The exhibition will be on display at least through Jan. 23.
The collection is now in a trust controlled by Green’s gallerist and a curator at the Portland Museum of Art, explained Green’s husband, the artist Clay Lohmann. They’re in negotiations looking to find a permanent home for the collection. The trust is a nonprofit and all proceeds go to the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, Lohmann said. In recent years, working with the center, Green began a new series, First Meal, painting the first meal of people released from prison after wrongful convictions.
Despite the theme, Green described her work as “hopeful,” citing the consistently decreasing number of executions in America.
In 1999, when she first read that brief newspaper article, 98 people were executed in America that year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. This year, so far, there have been 10 executions.
Washington has not executed a person since 2010. Gov. Jay Inslee declared a moratorium on the death penalty in 2014, and in 2018 the state Supreme Court ruled the state’s death penalty law unconstitutional “because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.”
Across the nation, 27 states have the death penalty, although several of them have governor-imposed moratoriums in place.
Since Green began her project, 10 states have abolished the death penalty and four have imposed moratoriums.
“Julie Green raised the awareness of the American public about the playing field and the death penalty and the criminal justice system,” Lohmann said. “Somebody puts something like that on the wall, it’s different than reading about it, it just puts a person and their humanity on display.”