Cynthia Plaster Caster broke the mold
Kind. Funny. Authentic, sincere. A darling, an artist, a legend. If the true sign of a life well lived is a tidal wave of emotional tributes upon your death, then Cynthia Albritton, better known to the world as Cynthia Plaster Caster, has lived a very good life. So much so that writing about her after her death – she died at 74 on April 21 – poses a major problem. How can I adequately reflect the memories of the hundreds, if not thousands of friends who mourn her around the world and all over my Facebook feed?
Cynthia adopted her art name in the late ’60s when, as a shy UIC art student and rock ‘n’ roll fan, she found a new way to fulfill an assignment. The task: to make a plaster cast of something solid that holds its shape. The solution: create a mold using an erect penis. After many experiments with casting materials and a few attempts with male friends, she began her formal work in 1968 choosing Jimi Hendrix.
Instantly known as Cynthia Plaster Caster, she later recruited dozens of musicians of the day, including guitarist Harvey Mandel and MC5’s Wayne Kramer. In 1969, she began a stay in Los Angeles as Frank Zappa’s protege, although she stopped doing casts in 1971. She returned to plaster in 1980, but from then on her production was intermittent. After returning to Chicago, his subjects were often local musicians, including Bill Dolan of 5ive Style and Jon Langford of the Mekons. In 2000, she branched out into casting women’s boobs in indie rock, such as Stereolab vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Laetitia Sadier and cult-adored vocalist Jan Terri. By the 2010s, its cast had shrunk to almost nothing.
In the decades that followed, Cynthia spoke about her work at the School of the Art Institute, exhibited her “adorable babies” in galleries and gave interpretive readings from her diaries that rivaled the best spoken word performances. . In 2010, she even ran for mayor. And she was a staple of the local music scene, her infectious enthusiasm for music and musicians has not waned over the years, even as her fortunes rose and fell.
I first met Cynthia in 1998 when she appeared on an all-ages cable dance show Chic-a-Go-Go. In a duet with Ratso, the show’s puppet co-host, she sang the title track of Stanley Donen’s Swinging London vehicle Dudley Moore-as-Faust in 1967. Bedazzled. I then interviewed her for the zine I ran with friends and, a few years later, for the Reader—the latter at the launch of a website selling limited edition plaster of Paris replicas of some of his most famous works of art. She hoped to raise money for her Cynthia P. Caster Foundation, created to help struggling musicians and artists.
But I really got to know Cynthia while working as a bartender at the Hideout, where she always sipped her red wine through a straw so she wouldn’t mess up her lipstick.
“When she attended a show, we knew it was going to be a fantastic show because she had such a taste for music,” said Hideout co-owner Katie Tuten, who treasured Cynthia as a friend and confidante. “When Cynthia was in the room, there was a warm glow because of the joy she radiated. . . . She was generationally transcendent.
Cynthia’s ability to glide in the wake between generations, communities, and scenes was a common thread in my conversations over the weekend with those mourning the loss of their friend. Born in 1947 on the South Side and raised as an only child, Cynthia had a difficult relationship with her conservative mother, whom she dubbed “the headmistress”. As an adult, she once worked as a typographer, but she found a kinship in the counterculture of art and music.
“She had so many scenes she was involved in,” says longtime friend Giulietta Karras, who was a teenager in the late 1970s when she met Cynthia at a photo shoot for Practice magazine. “There were so many worlds of Cynthia that you didn’t know about. We all saw a little piece of her, because she was a complicated person. . . . His friends were his family.
“She loved musicals and variety shows,” says her friend John Connors, who for years hosted a weekly show showing old movies and episodes of the Dean Martin Show. Cynthia was a regular every Sunday, until COVID shut down the world, but it wasn’t until she fell ill a few years ago that Connors discovered the extent of her social network. “I’m close to her, but there was like this whole other world that she had that I had no connection to,” he laughs. “It was like, who are all these other people!”
“Whenever I met her, I always introduced myself, because I assumed she knew so many people,” says musician Julie Pomerleau, aka Monica Boubou. In 2001, she and her husband, Bobby Conn, became the first couple to have their tracks immortalized in Cynthia’s cast. “And then the third or fourth time I did that, she said, ‘I to know that you are.’ And that really upset me. She loved Bobby and me as much as she loved Jimi Hendrix, and some of those things don’t quite go together, but OK!
“She was exuberant,” says musician Chloe F. Orwell of the Handcuffs. “Although she was exclusive in her castings – she wouldn’t cast anyone, you had to ask – she was inclusive in her friendships. She was so eager to meet anyone, and she made sure that everything the world feels like he’s his best friend.
Cynthia’s kindness and genuine enthusiasms are legendary; she would unfurl a signature “Hey, doll” (“dawwwll,” in her hoarse Chicago laugh) to everyone she loved, and she loved a lot of people. But her bubbly demeanor masked a spine of more solid things. She was highly intelligent and wickedly funny, with a strong sense of bullshit and an enviable sense of self. It took Frank Zappa, as the story goes, to convince her to see her life’s work as art, but she took her practice, in all its iterations, seriously.
Cynthia’s identity as an artist was important to her, says her friend Chris Kellner. “We talked about, like, where would you like your collection to be? And someone suggested the Sex Museum in Amsterdam,” he recalls. not sex objects. A lot of people don’t realize she was a great draughtswoman. She has some great, brilliant sketches that she’s done over the years, like George Harrison and Peter Tork – beautiful portraits.
“She loved talking about her ‘babies’,” says her friend Linda Lofstrom. “When she was offered to lecture at the Art Institute, that’s when she felt she had really arrived.”
“She did this incredibly brave thing,” says Jeff Economy, co-producer and cinematographer for Jessica Villines’ 2001 documentary plaster caster and (of course) a friend of Cynthia. “Her whole life was her art and her ability to do what she did, whether or not she adopted the title. [of artist] 100% of the time, that’s what matters.
For years, Cynthia worked on a memoir from time to time, but she was never quite able to tackle the task of self-reflection. “She just wanted to keep doing her art, period,” says writer Mairead Case, who booked Cynthia to read her diaries at the Pitchfork Book Fort and worked with her on a spell on the memoir project. “I think if she were to stop and write about it and think about it, it would take her out of the forward movement.”
A few years ago, Cynthia was reading from her journal in Burlington when Kellner introduced her to no-wave singer and poet Lydia Lunch. They planned to throw out Lunch’s breasts, but by then Cynthia was starting to get sick. So COVID intervened.
The isolation of the first months of the pandemic was hard on Cynthia, as it was for so many of the most vulnerable people. Few people outside of her inner circle even knew she was sick. But last year, as the world began to open up and she grew increasingly ill, her strong network of friends rallied to care for her, taking turns to visit her with food or just drop by to sing him songs. Three weeks before her death, Connors says, “she was still very convincing—very weak, but still joking, still wanting to hear gossip.”
“We had a lot of fun,” says Babette Novak, who introduced Cynthia to the world of spas and pedicures. It was Novak who had the unenviable task of taking to Facebook last week to confirm to the world the rumors of his close friend’s death. “She’s had a tough life, and if I was her, I probably wouldn’t be so optimistic,” Novak says. “But she was really optimistic about a lot of things.”
“You know, you meet people in the rock world, and some of them are so bitter and they’re so cynical and they’ve seen it all,” Economy says. “But she never lost enthusiasm. She never lost the kind of teenage thrill of doing this really naughty thing.
“I think Cynthia was a stand-in for all the regular people who always wanted to be into the glamorous rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle,” Karras says. “In a way, she was a great groupie, but she was a nerdy groupie, a regular girl. Can you believe she went to The Factory once and met Andy Warhol? And you know, we’re not Edie, but we can all be Cynthia in a place like this.
“She was Chicago, and she was ours in a very special way,” Pomerleau says. “And I will miss her so much.”