The Last Supper
Growing up in Iowa, I admired family quilts and ukiyo-e prints at home and the neighbor’s yard with larger-than-life historical figures and 20’ American flag made with ears of colored corn. An appreciation for the homemade and handmade led me to paint blue food.
The Last Supper illustrates the meal requests of U.S. death row inmates. Prisons, books and newspapers provide meal requests from 36 states. Plates are installed in alphabetical order by state, in chronological order within state. Date, state and final meal request are posted, but not the inmate’s name. Cobalt blue mineral paint is applied to second-hand ceramic plates and kiln-fired to 1400 degrees by Toni Acock and Sandy Houtman. There are now 950 painted plates. I add fifty plates a year and plan to end the series when we abolish capital punishment, or at 1000 plates, which ever happens first.
Oklahoma has higher per capita executions than Texas. I taught there, and that is how I came to read final meal requests in the morning paper. When we think of capital punishment in the U.S., we think of Texas with the largest number of executions, and for years, highly publicized final meals. Texas, home to those cattle ranches, didn’t allow steak. If you ordered steak, you got ground beef. In 2011, after one large meal was not consumed, Texas stopped the practice and became the only death penalty state that simply serves the standard prison meal. No alcohol, anywhere. Cigarettes are banned, but sometimes allowed. In states with options, most selections are modest. This is not surprising, as many are limited to what is in the prison kitchen. Others provide meals from local venues. California allows restaurant take-out, up to fifty-dollars. Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, and Long John Silver’s are frequently selected in Oklahoma, where the fifteen-dollar allowance is down from twenty in the late 1990’s.
The Last Supper has been featured in The New York Times and NPR. Exhibitions include The Block Museum at Northwestern, where it set attendance records, and, currently, Bellevue Arts Museum through fall 2021. In two decades of the project, support of capital punishment has decreased. The public is more informed about the high cost of a capital conviction. Life without parole, also called true life, is now a firm life sentence with no chance of parole. There’s an increase in awareness of margin for error and the role race plays; Blacks are seven times more likely to be wrongfully accused of murder.
A final meal request humanizes death row for me. Selections provide clues on region, race, and economic background. A family history becomes apparent when Indiana Department of Corrections adds “he told us he never had a birthday cake so we ordered a birthday cake for him.”
Why do we have this tradition of final meals, I wondered, after seeing a request for six tacos, six glazed donuts, and a cherry Coke. Twenty-one years later, I still wonder.
Death penalty information
10 February 2021 www.deathpenaltyinfo.org
In 1998, there were 295 death sentences imposed; in 2020, there were 18. Although the United States is considered a death penalty country, executions are rare or non-existent in much of the nation. Twenty-five of 53 jurisdictions in the U.S. (50 states, the District of Columbia, the Federal Government, and the Military) either do not have the death penalty or have not carried out an execution in at least 10 years. Since 1973, 174 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence.
1532 total U.S. state-sanctioned executions since 1976
43 North Carolina
43 South Carolina
5 South Dakota
1 New Mexico
16 U.S. Federal Government
States without the death penalty, and year abolished
New Hampshire (2019)
New Jersey (2007)
New Mexico (2009)
New York (2007)
North Dakota (1973)
Rhode Island (1984)
West Virginia (1965)
Dist. of Columbia (1981)
States with moratoria
California, Colorado, Oregon, and Pennsylvania