THE LAST SUPPER
Born in Yokosuka, Japan, her father was in the US Navy. After growing up in Japan, the family moved to Des Moines, Iowa.
Julie studied illustration and design at the University of Kansas before becoming a professional artist.
She married Clay Lohmann, a fellow artist.
But then she declared herself ‘gender neutral’.
She taught for two decades at Oregon State University before moving to Oklahoma University to teach painting.
Oklahoma has one of the highest execution rates in the USA. Julie was reading about these state executions on almost a daily basis. She noted that the papers nearly always gave details about the prisoners’ final meals – “That is really weird information…so specific, so personal.”
So, Julie began a new project called ‘The Last Supper’. She painted prisoners last meals onto ceramic plates, all in cobalt blue.
She was accused of glorifying the executions, but she claimed it was the exact opposite – her way of protesting. “For me a final meal humanises Death Row. Menus provide clues on religion, race and economic background and often tell a family story.”
She said the plates showed “a window into the soul in an hour of crisis.”
Her first subject was Malcolm Johnson (41), sentenced for murder, in Oklahoma City 2000 (fried chicken and shrimp covered in ketchup).
One prisoner had his mother cook German ravioli with chicken dumplings.
Another had just a bag of ‘Jolly Ranchers’ (fruit flavoured sweets – which are banned in the UK).
A third asked for a birthday cake as he had never had one. Julie said, “can you imagine never having had a birthday cake?”
She painted all kinds of things as part of the last meals; Buffalo steak, KFC chicken, sugar-free pecan pie, pizza, apple pie, barbequed ribs, a jar of dill pickles, sugar-free black walnut ice cream – even a Honey Bun from a vending machine.
She did 50 plates a year, working for six months at a time on the project.
Texas was the only state to refuse prisoners their choice of a last meal – they just ate what was on the prison menu on that date. Julie painted the words ‘No Choice’ on the plate.
If she couldn’t find the details of the final meal in the paper, she just phoned the prison. There was always someone willing to pass on the information.
The ‘Last Supper’ was on permanent display in Bellevue, Texas. She never put the name of the prisoner because she didn’t want to humiliate the family – or the victim. “What benefit would there be in that?”
She even started to go back into history, painting the fried chicken and watermelons given to two black teenagers executed for murder in Mississippi in 1947.
And she painted the single apple given to a man in Montana in 1917.
She received lots of criticism but her project was non-profit. “I thought of meals that I’d prepared or meals that I’d had with my family, and I realised that we all have food in common – inmates are no different.”
She was even happy with criticism – “It starts a conversation about the death penalty.”
Less successful was a related project in 2018 called ‘First Meal’. This was about prisoners who had been on Death Row but exonerated and released – it was about their first meal on the outside of prison. The first subject was Kristine Bunch who had been in prison for 17 years for killing her son. When new information was discovered, proving her innocence, Kristine ordered scallops, cheese grits, hummus, vegetables and champagne. Julie called it the ‘worst meal’.
She abandoned this project quickly. “Naively, I thought these paintings would be more uplifting – of course the meal is celebratory but there is nothing compared to the lost years – it’s no balance for the wrongful conviction.”
Her intention was to keep on going until capital punishment was abolished in the USA. But when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she decided to stop at 1,000 plates.
Her other paintings included childhood, animal abuse and the re-alignment of gender.
Julie died by assisted suicide at her home in Corvallis, Oregon, under the state’s ‘Death with Dignity Act’.
At her death, 800 of her plates were displayed in the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington – described as “strange and soulful.”
RIP – Recording Intimate Plates