Saturday, September 20, 2003


DME doesn't know much about art. Our tastes run toward the "Dogs Playing Pool" area, but this sounds interesting.

The highlights:

OSU art professor serves up reflections on death penalty


CORVALLIS -- In shape and color, the works in "The Last Supper" by art professor Julie Green of Oregon State University seem at first folksy and familiar.

Hanging in OSU's Fairbanks Gallery are 151 white china plates, each bearing a different image painted in the cobalt palette of the classic Blue Willow pattern.

Step closer, and those images also seem reassuringly familiar: realistic renditions of all-American meals, from steak and eggs to burgers and fries.

Only when you read the artist's statement does that familiarity breed consternation. Each plate depicts the actual last meal of an inmate executed in the United States during the past decade.

In such a context, there is something unsettling about a plate containing only a bag of Jolly Ranchers, or grape juice and a single cracker.

There also is something disconcertingly personal about a plate of fried perch, potato salad, cole slaw and peaches, or one containing a chocolate cake with the date "2/23/90" written on top.

Green began the project while she was teaching at the University of Oklahoma (Ed. Note: DME'S alma mater), before coming to Oregon State three years ago.

"Wherever I live, I enjoy reading the local paper with my breakfast tea and toast," she said. "There are a lot of executions in Oklahoma, and I began noticing that they always included in their state news roundup a brief item on who was executed the night before."

Menu for final meal The brief stories typically included what the condemned prisoners wore to the death chamber, what they said before dying and a physical description of their deaths. And they invariably detailed what the doomed inmates had requested as a final meal.

The specificity of these accounts -- "For his last meal, he had six tacos, six glazed doughnuts and a Cherry Coke" -- struck Green as both fascinating and disturbing.

"They bothered me, and I make art as a way of processing things," she said. "So I began making drawings of the menus as I read them."

As she got caught up in the project, she began seeking out final meals nationwide. She found that food choices revealed the prisoners' individuality in ways that made them more vivid as human beings.

Menu items could suggest economic status, cultural background, education level -- even where the prisoners had grown up, if they opted for regional specialties.

"One Indiana menu was 'ravioli and German lasagna prepared by his mother and prison dietary staff,' " Green said. "I just kept trying to imagine that experience for that mother."

Because of its provocative subject, Green expected her work to stir discussion and dialogue about the death penalty. "That's the power of art in contemporary culture," she said.

A comment book touring with the exhibit indicates that some viewers are not at all bothered by what they see there. "Cute plates!" wrote more than one.

Viewer loses appetite Many others are deeply disturbed.

With executions continuing, Green has no shortage of subject matter.

"I've already collected 200 more menus," she said. "I see this as a work in progress. I picture that I will continue it for years, unless the death penalty is stopped."