Julie Green and Kirk Johnson
Wrongful convictions haunt the American criminal justice system, as revealed in recent years by DNA and other investigative tools. And every wrongfully convicted person who walks free, exonerated after years or decades, carries part of that story. From those facts, artist Julie Green posed a seemingly simple question: When you have been denied all choice, what do you choose to eat on the first day of freedom?
In the small details of life at such pivotal moments, a vast new landscape of the world can emerge, and that is the core concept of First Meal. Partnering with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, Green and her coauthor, award-winning journalist Kirk Johnson, have created a unique melding of art and narration in the portraits and stories of twenty-five people on the day of their release.
Food and punishment have long been intertwined. The tradition of offering a condemned person a final meal before execution, for example, has been explored by psychologists, filmmakers, and others—including Green herself in an earlier series of criminal-justice themed paintings, The Last Supper. First Meal takes on that issue from the other side: food as a symbol of autonomy in a life restored. Set against the backdrop of a flawed American legal system, First Meal describes beauty, pain, hope and redemption, all anchored around the idea—explored by writers from Marcel Proust to Michael Pollan—that food touches us deeply in memory and emotion.
In Green’s art, state birds and surreal lobsters soar over places where wrongful convictions unfolded, mistaken witnesses shout their errors, glow-in-the-dark skylines evoke homecoming. Johnson’s essays take us inside those moments—from the courtrooms where things went wrong to the pathways of faith and resilience that kept people sane through their years of injustice. First Meal seeks to inform and spread awareness, but also celebrate the humanity that unites us, and the idea that gratitude and euphoria—even as it mixes with grief and the awareness of loss—can emerge in places we least expect.
About the author
Julie Green (1961–2021) was a professor of art at Oregon State University. Her work has been featured in thirty-two exhibitions in the United States and abroad, and in publications such as the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Ceramics Monthly, and Gastronomica.
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Kirk Johnson worked at the New York Times for 38 years, including 15 years as a national correspondent covering the American West. In 2001, he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for the Times' multi- part series, “How Race is Lived in America.”
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