Portia Munson "Tree Knife Elbow"
While Rosanne Cash’s latest album She Remembers Everything has garnered customary critical acclaim, the album’s varied packaging and extensive corresponding merchandise has also drawn notice, largely due to a powerful image created by visual artist Portia Munson that prompted Cash to seek her collaboration in all the visual aspects relating to the release.
The central image is a surreal Munson print entitled Tree Knife Elbow, which pictures an ornate knife, standing vertically like a tree trunk and surrounded by red leaf-like rose petals on a black background. Cash and Munson worked together in adapting the print for the She Remembers Everything CD cover, which has a photo of Cash now in the center, eyes dreamily closed, catching a knife while surrounded by rose petals.
"She Remembers Everything" CD
The album art is the same on both CD and vinyl LP configurations, but for the deluxe CD version Cash’s eyes are open. As for the cover of the 12 x 12-inch limited edition She Remembers Everything Memory Box (containing deluxe case-bound CD, pink disc vinyl album, illustrated book, printed lithograph, personal correspondence with the likes of album participants Elvis Costello and Sam Phillips, and exclusive live CD featuring Cash, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams), the cover shows the rose petals surrounding a bigger knife than the one held by Cash on the CDs.
As for the merchandise, variations of Tree Knife Elbow appear on t-shirts, tote bags, signed posters, bandanas and silk scarves; everything is available at her website, where the home page proffers lines from the She Remembers Everything titletrack (“Who knows who she used to be before it all went dark?,” “Was she like a streak of fire, a pane of glass, a beating heart?,” “I didn’t know her then/My enemy, my treasured friend” and inevitably, “She remembers everything”--interspersed with images of such historic women as Janis Joplin, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jane Austen, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Hildegard von Bingen.
Hailed by author Andrea Pitzer in the album’s press bio as “a deliberate return to personal songwriting“ following three albums exploring her roots (Black Cadillac, The List and her Grammy-winning last album The River & The Thread), She Remembers Everything, as hinted at in the title itself, can be taken as “both a come-on and a threat,” per Pitzer. Even the lead track “The Only Thing Worth Fighting For” offers “a haunting dissection of interpersonal combat,” but as ever, Cash tempers her typical intensity with beauty—much as mirrored by Munson’s graphic juxtaposition of knife and rose.
New Yorker Cash, who excitedly happened upon a dress with a similar rose petal pattern in Soho and is wearing it in a forthcoming She Remembers Everything electronic press kit, was a fan of Munson’s artwork prior to approaching her regarding the album.
“I’d seen Tree Knife Elbow, and it made me gasp,” says Cash. “It was so powerful, so contained. Sort of threatening, but in a challenging way. Not violent or self-serving. Just powerful.”
Portia Munson's "Pink Project: Bedroom"
But her introduction to Munson, who works in mediums including photography, painting, sculpture and installations--and focuses primarily on environmental and cultural themes observed, like Cash, from a feminist perspective—was an installation called Pink Bedoom. It was a version of her Pink Project concept, which was first exhibited at Manhattan’s New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1994 and consisted of thousands of women’s (and girls’) discarded pink objects—everything from hair clips and combs to kitchen gadgets and tampon applicators.
As Munson explains on her website: “My art installations are contemplation and comment on our manufactured perceptions of nature. We as a culture are defined by the objects we mass-produce, consume and throw away. I collect these objects and assemble them into congested installations, in essence using as my resource the refuse of consumer culture that usually ends up in landfills--what you might call ‘the backside of the mall.’”
“Pink Bedroom was just stunning,” recalls Cash. “It took femininity and exploded the whole idea, while reclaiming every iconic artifact of girls and women and taking them to the verge of madness: Barbie dolls, bras, high heels, stockings, toys--all reclaimed without embarrassment and re-energized in a spectacular way. I just loved it, and her entire world view--the way she created, and her subject matter.”
“Toying around” with different ideas for the She Remembers Everything cover, Cash kept coming back to Munson’s work—which she had explored fully after seeing Pink Bedroom.
“But she just seemed way out of my reach [because] she wasn’t an album cover designer. But I took a chance and contacted her and asked if she would be interested in doing an album cover. I had an idea that she might deconstruct Tree Knife Elbow for the cover, and make it so that the petals were falling around me and the knife was falling into my hands. She said she’d like to try it, and now you see the result: I think we both were really captivated by the possibilities for other objects so she created the whole line of merch, and it’s been really fun.”
Unbeknownst to Cash, Munson had been aware of her and her music “forever.”
“The first time I heard her perform was many years ago in the Catskills near where I live,” says Munson. “She was on stage with her father, and it tuned me into who she is as an artist. I’ve followed her ever since, and when she contacted me and responded to what I was doing, it seemed like such a perfect match: I loved the title of the album, which seemed so powerful and timely, and the work of mine that she connected with was one of my own favorites.”
The original Tree Knife Elbow is actually a photographic image made with a scanner—a process called scanner photography, or scanography.
“I use the scanner as a camera to get detail and make an image with a very shallow depth-of-field, giving it a unique look,” says Munson. “Rosanne had some ideas based on it, and we went back-and-forth. She was so generous in giving me little hints and ideas about what she was looking for, and sent me early versions of some of the songs, so most of the time I was listening to her music and hearing her voice while working on creating the work for her.”
Munson notes that as so often happens, the original Tree Knife Elbow image “just came to me.” But it obviously offered an interpretation of the red petals, in relation to the knife, as “droplets of blood.”
“Flowers appear in much of my work,” Munson says. “I think about how a beautiful flower is like a person—how life can be so beautiful, but also fleeting. Flowers and mortality.”
As for the knife, she says that both the large one of the original print and the smaller one gracing the album art were made by a friend who goes by the name of Peddler, who finds old knives and “repurposes” them.
"She Remembers Everything Memory Box"
The knife in Tree Knife Elbow actually has a handle made from a human elbow bone, which Peddler acquired from a mummy. The smaller one has a flower at the end of an antler handle hammered out of a silver coin.
“Something about a flower on a knife that’s kind of a contradiction,” says Munson. “It’s beautiful—but also has a really sharp edge, and is a power object. It’s important for me to make something beautiful, but what’s also important is that a lot of times there are ideas or feelings or things that I want to convey that aren’t so beautiful, that have a painful aspect to them. I hope my image conveys that, and I think it’s what Rosanne is doing in her work: There is sadness and pain, but something that’s also very beautiful. She’s really a beautiful person, and I was so thrilled and honored just to have been a part of her album.”
Says Cash, “I am really inspired by visual art, and have a lot of friends who are visual artists. It meant a lot to me that the visuals of the record speak as loudly as the songs, and I felt, as a songwriter, the same urgency I saw in Portia’s work.”
In fact, Cash bought a copy of the original Tree Knife Elbow print.
“I bought a large version that now hangs in my living room!” she concludes.