The Salt
11:38 am
Fri June 22, 2012

Artist Protests Death Penalty By Painting Prisoners' Final Meals

Originally published on Fri June 22, 2012 1:22 pm

Chefs (and the rest of us) often fantasize about what to pick for our last meal on Earth. But the answers we come up with are often extravagant and largely theoretical.

Well, what if your request was capped at $20, and ingredients were limited to those available in a prison's humble pantry? That's the "choice" presented to most of the 3,000-plus prisoners currently on death row in the United States. Except in Texas, which leads the nation in executions. The Longhorn State (which never allowed steak, only hamburger) abolished special final meals in September after an inmate declined to eat what was considered too grandiose a request.

Artist Julie Green stumbled upon these morbid menus in her morning paper when she lived in Oklahoma, which has the country's highest per-capita execution rate. Over her tea and toast one day, Green read of a final request for "three fried chicken thighs, 10 or 15 shrimp, tater tots with ketchup, two slices of pecan pie, strawberry ice cream, honey and biscuits and a Coke." The simple plea for a final moment of comfort through food prompted her to take action.

More than a decade later, Green has painted 519 of these meals on blue-on-white porcelain plates in her award-winning chef-d'oeuvre, The Last Supper. Check out our slideshow above for a sampling, including an Indiana request for "chicken and dumplings and German ravioli, prepared by my mother and dietary staff." Another asks for pizza with a birthday cake, because the inmate had never had one. A South Carolina prisoner wanted a bottle of Dom Perignon but didn't receive it. (Alcohol is prohibited in all 33 states with the death penalty.)

With the ongoing debate over capital punishment, Green finds her work in the national spotlight. Whole Foods recently produced a documentary on The Last Supper for its new online publication, Dark Rye. At exhibits, Green is often asked what she'd request for her own last supper. But she declines to give an answer. "It's not about me," she says. Green says she'll keep painting until capital punishment is abolished — unless she burns out first.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.