First Meal, a collaboration between the late Oregon State University art professor Julie Green (1961–2021) and Kirk Johnson, an award-winning correspondent with the New York Times, will be published by OSU Press in October. Using art, reporting, and first-person accounts, it reckons with exonerees’ experiences through stories of their first meals after being released from prison. Coauthor Kirk Johnson talked with publicist Derek Krissoff for the blog.
As a correspondent for the New York Times, you wrote movingly about another of Julie Green’s projects, the art exhibit The Last Supper. Can you say a little about how the book First Meal grew from that earlier effort?
The Last Supper was a searing look at the final hours and decisions of a person’s life before execution. First Meal emerged as a kind of counterpoint to that earlier work, looking forward into the lives of people as they re-entered the world after being imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. Julie and I had stayed in touch after my New York Times story, and she reached out to me in 2020 to see if I wanted to join her in the First Meal project. I immediately felt the power of the idea and said yes without hesitation.
Stories of wrongful conviction and exoneration will always, with good reason, elicit emotional responses—and then there’s a different set of emotional reactions that many readers have to stories about food. How do you see these tendencies interacting in First Meal? What do you think the overlay of food does for a book about justice?
The justice system carries an aura of logic. Proof. Reasonable doubt. Evidence. Sworn testimony. In reality it’s a human system, and so full of all the pieces that make us who we are—ambition, emotion, error, passion, and arrogance. Food, by contrast, touches us in a place of memory and psychology that we can sometimes barely articulate at all. First Meal seeks to connect those strands—the logic of law and the emotional gut-punch of food. What sustains us is the unifying thought of the book. Society needs a fair and functional justice system. But as people, we must eat to survive, and what we eat—and choose to eat, if choice is possible—in turn defines us and shapes us
In First Meal there’s an additional level of emotional response, of course, inspired by the artwork at the book’s core. As a writer who covered (among other topics) crime and the legal system, how has looking at Julie’s art changed the way you think about these realms?
Among the many things I learned from Julie and her art is that there are infinite ways of seeing. She thought deeply about the elements of each exoneree’s story, but then—for reasons that she said she could express as an artist but not always articulate—she would allow herself to fly away on a tangent of inspiration and freedom. In the First Meal paintings, vegetables jump on trampolines. Lobsters slice across the sky like angels. “This is what painting allows,” she wrote. In her art, the freedom that exonerees were denied during their years in prison bursts forth.
Is there any one story of exoneration from First Meal that sticks with you especially?
Julie Rea’s exoneration, and the story of her first meal after release from prison—told in the final chapter of the book—are intertwined, both parts so powerful that they’re impossible for me to forget. Her horror story began when a stranger broke into her house and stabbed her son, Joel, to death in his bed. Police and prosecutors disbelieved the story—murders hardly ever happen this way—and Rea was convicted of the crime. She lost her son and her freedom in one blow. The real killer, who said he murdered people in exactly this way, breaking into homes on impulse, subsequently confessed. And then, the second part of the story: At her meal after release, a friend stepped up to Rea out of nowhere and without a word began feeding fresh blueberries into her mouth by hand—another spontaneous and improbable gesture, this time of healing, decency, and love.
I want to take a minute to talk about the book itself, which strikes me as an ambitious artifact. How, to you, do the various pieces (Julie’s writing, your own, the testimonials from exonerated people, and Julie’s art) fit together?
First Meal, boiled down to its essence, is essentially a search—by Julie, by me, and by the exonerees themselves—for the pieces of a story of wrongful conviction and what came after. And just as every wrongful conviction comes about in a different way—sometimes by innocent error or bad luck, sometimes deliberate malfeasance—every story and painting in the book is unique too. Julie and I decided from the beginning that First Meal should not be a broad polemic about the problems of criminal injustice or an academic analysis of causes and cures, but rather a lens that zooms in on those small moments and pieces. The paintings and stories are meant to illuminate one corner of the world and what happened there—how things went wrong, how people survived injustice or what came after—as best we could.
While we’re talking about the book as a physical and cultural object, can you say a bit about your publisher, Oregon State University Press? Is it important that this project came into being with help from a university press?
I think there is a strong educational component to First Meal that made it ideal for publication by a university press and by Oregon State University Press in particular. Julie was an art professor there. I think the nature of my collaboration with Julie—the two of us coming from such different backgrounds, perspectives, experience, and talents—also feels right in the hands of a university press. Collaboration across disciplines—something that more and more colleges and universities are embracing and encouraging, if only to better train students for the modern workplace of teams and projects—is how First Meal came together.
Finally, can you tell me about the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, which receives proceeds from the sale of the book?
Julie and the then-director of the Center, Karen Daniel, developed a questionnaire for exonerees about their experiences upon release from prison. The questionnaire was fittingly designed with choice and freedom in mind: People could fill it out and participate or choose not to. They could allow their names to be used or remain anonymous, as some in the book did. And then they could agree or decline to be interviewed as things moved forward. In gratitude for the Center’s participation, and because the work they do is so important, Julie and I both felt that a portion of the book’s proceeds should go back in support.