“Food is social.”
Last Saturday, this idea rang true at the Block Museum’s Opening Day Program for The Last Supper: 600 Plates Illustrating Final Meals of U.S. Death Row Inmates, an installation by Julie Green. In this exhibition, food highlights the human dimension of one of our nation’s most polarizing issues: capital punishment.
Green, Professor of Art at Oregon State University, spoke to a full house in Fisk Hall. She gave background on her process and how this project resonates with her larger artistic concerns. Green has committed to painting 50 plates of death row inmates’ last meal requests every year until capital punishment is abolished.
Green’s feelings about the death penalty took root not far from Northwestern in the Chicago suburb where she grew up. Her family was religious, conservative and long-time supporters of the death penalty. After Green began working on The Last Supper, even her mother shifted perspective and no longer supports capital punishment.
“If I can change my mom, I can change the world,” Green told an audience, both amused and in awe.
Following Green’s introduction, Rob Owen, Clinical Professor of Law at Northwestern, and Elliot Reichert, Curator of Special Projects at the Block, joined her for a conversation about representation, the criminal justice system and social justice.
“I found myself laughing,” said Owen of a plate depicting a 2003 Alabama inmate who “Requested shrimp, but it wasn’t available in the prison kitchen. Ate vending machine snacks.”
“Is that okay?” Owen asked.
Green nodded. “This humanizes death row inmates. Humor is part of human life.”
Green, Owen and Reichert then opened the conversation up to questions from the audience.
“What would be your last meal?” asked an Evanston Township High School student. This was the only question that Green declined to answer. Her flavor palette isn’t the point, she said, and so sharing her menu choice obscures the stakes of this installation. She wants to focus on what a Texas inmate ordered on plate number 518 in March of 2000: “Justice, equality, world peace.”
“Food kicks us in the gut sometimes,” said Green. Food is social, and as Green proves, it can digest the intricacies of violence and victim into justice.
Following the afternoon’s talk, students, faculty and community members joined Green in the Block Museum for refreshments and first access to the Main Gallery.
Hundreds of visitors examined 600 plates organized alphabetically by state with a plate-by-plate Gallery Guide in hand. One other item occupied visitors’ hands: their cell phones.
Exhibition viewers both young and old snapped photos of these plates that, to be quite honest, are perfect Instagram material.
Julie Green, Rob Owen, and Elliot Reichert spoke to visitors in the gallery throughout the afternoon.
Learn about Upcoming Block Programs exploring The Last Supper.