“The Last Supper”: Professor Rob Owen on how Art Illuminates the Law

July 13, 2015

“The Last Supper: 600 Plates Illustrating Final Meals of U.S. Death Row Inmates,” a current exhibit by artist Julie Green at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, raises provocative questions about capital punishment and humanity through the experience of a final meal.

Because this exhibit lives at the intersection of the humanities and the law, it provided an opportunity for Northwestern University School of Law to partner with the Block Museum and develop a slate of interdisciplinary educational programming. Green, during the opening event, commented on the significance of the exhibit at Northwestern University, where the Center on Wrongful Convictions played a pivotal in the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois.

“Julie’s project is one of quiet resistance,” said Susy Bielak, associate director of engagement and curator of public practice at the Block Museum. “We wondered what it would look like to invite people whose lives have been wrought by the criminal justice system.”

Elliot Reichert, curator of special projects at the Block Museum, described the connection between the Law School and the exhibit as organic, and one that was central to bringing the project to Northwestern University. “We knew we wanted the Bluhm Legal Clinic to be involved.”

By exploring the different “acts” that comprise a journey through the criminal justice system the exhibit programming gave viewers a comprehensive look at the many facets of the system.

The opening event and “Seen from Inside: Perspectives on Capital Punishment” both featured Professor Rob Owen, clinical professor of law in the Bluhm Legal Clinic, where he teaches Clinical Practice: Criminal Defense—The Death Penalty. The latter event also featured a conversation between Sara Sommervold, intake attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions, and Leroy Orange, a death row exoneree. Jeanne Bishop (JD ’84), assistant Cook County public defender who was intimately involved in the criminal justice system through the death of her sister, also spoke.

During the event, Owen read a closing argument from a capital punishment trial, offering insight into the psychology of jurors as they deliberate. He cited stripping the defendant of his individuality and humanity as a key component of prosecutorial strategy.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions was also tapped to help program the exhibit, specifically in order to bring exonerated people and victims’ perspectives on capital punishment. Sommervold, described the exhibit as “directly speaking to the criminal justice system,” and thus, an important space for them to be involved in. The perspectives of both Orange and Bishop resonated deeply with attendees of the event.

Owen believes the death penalty is at the forefront of American public dialogue right now; between the Supreme Court’s recent decision on the use of lethal injection, Glossip v. Gross, and the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial, Americans are contending with the moral implications of capital punishment. A recent Pew Study found Americans’ support for the death penalty at 56%, a 40-year low.

Owen’s experience in the courtroom, defending clients in death penalty cases at the state and federal level, informed the questions he asked as he examined the work. In addition, Owen taught courses on the cultural life of capital punishment at the University of Texas, and noted that while the significance of last meals was a common theme in works of art dealing with capital punishment, he felt this exhibit was the “best realized” work in the genre.

For example, while the plates depict the meals themselves in some detail, and include the relevant date and state for each, they do not reference the name of the condemned inmate. That kind of simultaneous detail and distancing struck Owen as an evocative and deliberate choice by the artist, and one that speaks to the intricate psychology inherent in capital punishment cases.

Bielak believes that while “there’s a narrative that accompanies each of these plates there is much left unsaid,” and this is why fostering a conversation among different communities and related disciplines is vital.

Ultimately, Reichert believes that in providing a “humanistic perspective on social justice issues” the Block Museum is fulfilling its central mission. “In working together the conversation [about capital punishment] is deeper and less isolated.”

The exhibit is at the Block Museum through August 9, 2015.