A cookie may have led to Kristine Bunch’s release from prison — and sparked a series of paintings inspired by wrongful convictions.
In 1996, Bunch was found guilty in Indiana for the arson-murder of her 3-year old son. She proclaimed her innocence for the next 16 years behind bars, until she was finally exonerated in 2012. She was 22 years old and six months pregnant with her second son when she first entered prison.
Several years later, Bunch saved cookies for a pregnant fellow inmate, a small kindness that unexpectedly helped her find a lawyer to take her case. “I knew what it was like to be pregnant in prison,” recalls Bunch, “so I would bring this girl cookies from the kitchen. One day, she asked me about my case, and then she wrote to her lawyer about me.”
Bunch’s case was eventually taken up by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, which obtained previously withheld documents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, along with her son’s autopsy report, which directly contradicted the initial arson investigation and showed that the trailer house fire was accidental.
Tasting freedom for the first time since she was arrested at age 21, Bunch went to a restaurant near the courthouse in Columbus, Ind., and ate a celebratory lunch: scallops, cheese grits, a platter of hummus and vegetables, and champagne. It was a meal that ended up becoming the first image in a series titled “First Meal” by Julie Green, a visual artist and professor of art at Oregon State University.
Green, who is known for another project called “The Last Supper,” an ongoing series depicting the final meals of death row prisoners, is now documenting first meals eaten by exonerated prisoners.
Green met Bunch in 2015, when her work was being exhibited at Northwestern University’s Block Museum. The concept for the new series was already incubating in Green’s mind, however, from a conversation she’d had back in 2000 with Oklahoma State University art department chair Jim Folts.
“Jim said, ‘When you end the [Last Supper] series, you could paint a final plate: a first meal of an exoneree,'” says Green, who has a goal of immortalizing 50 death row meals each year until capital punishment is abolished — and has completed 800 so far. “Eighteen years later, I am doing just that, painting First Meal. I couldn’t wait any longer.”
Green views this series, and her other work, in the same way, saying, “I hope the viewer will consider the margin for error in the judicial process. ‘First Meal’ may bring about conversation that could lead to positive change. Art can do that.”
Bunch wasn’t intending on becoming the subject of a painting when she met Green, but wanted to find out if Green had yet documented the final meal — which included enchiladas and pie — of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of the arson-murder of his three young children in 1992 and executed in Texas in 2004. The forensic evidence in Willingham’s case, eerily similar to that which convicted Bunch, has been questioned in the years since his death.
“Julie told me she hadn’t had time to create his plate yet,” says Bunch, “but then she contacted me later and sent me a reproduction of what his plate would look like. It touched me so much that she did that, so when I heard about the new project, I was absolutely on board with participating.”
Sara Sommervold, a fellow and attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions, sees the “First Meal” project as one that, like “The Last Supper” series, helps to humanize convicted prisoners.
“That first meal is a very profound event in an exoneree’s life,” says Sommervold. “The inability to choose food in prison, the absence of color and flavor, these are all fundamental parts of the experience. It’s no accident that so many exonerees choose colorful plates of food when they are released.”
One exoneree, who spent 15 years in prison for murder, spoke in his interview with the Center on Wrongful Convictions about being given an orange by a waitress during his first meal, and how he simply held it for more than half an hour, glorying in its color and scent, saying, “The little things in life mean so much when you’re deprived of them, but out in the world we take them for granted.”
With a goal of amassing 20 menus, Sommervold helps collect interviews with clients who have been exonerated, which Green then crafts into a visual representation — but the process is about more than paint.
“Naively, I thought ‘First Meal’ would be more uplifting to paint than ‘The Last Supper,'” says Green. “Of course the meal is celebratory, but it is nothing compared to all those lost years. And how do you depict absence, not having an orange for seven years? How do you illustrate holding an orange for 40 minutes before savoring every bite?”
Green’s approach is inspired by her love for flow blue, a type of ceramic dishware — also called transferware — that originated in Staffordshire, England, in the early 19th century and is distinguished by its soft, or flowing, blue glaze. The decorative images on the pottery often depict scenes of pastoral countryside or happy celebrations, which Green felt could offer an interesting counterpoint to the underlying subject. She also often incorporates other symbolic imagery, like the state bird where the conviction took place or thumbprints representing DNA analysis.
For the image of Bunch’s first meal, Green says, “I chose a transferware of an idyllic gathering to show the passage of time, and how surreal it must be to leave prison and be with your family and friends eating hummus and scallops.” As the project continues to take shape, Green has begun incorporating text from the actual interviews into the images to help provide necessary context, such as an exoneree who described having a potluck-style first meal at a friend’s home. Someone brought blueberries — the exoneree’s favorite fruit — and hand-fed them to her in a moment of tenderness, a scene recreated by Green in the final piece.
The subtlety of the imagery can be surprising when juxtaposed against the human tragedies that are at the root of the artwork.
“She’s not your standard commercial gallery artist,” says Theo Downes-LeGuin, who represents Green at Upfor Gallery in Portland, Ore. “The power of art, and of this type of project, is that it gives people enough controversy to have that conversation, but also a safe place in which to discuss it.”
Kristen Hartke is a food writer based in Washington, D.C.