Kind. Funny. Genuine. A sweetheart, an artist, a legend. If the true sign of a life well lived is a tidal wave of emotional tributes when you die, then Cynthia Albritton—better known to the whole wide world as Cynthia Plaster Caster—lived a very good life. So much so that writing about her after her passing—she died at age 74 on April 21—poses a daunting problem. How can I adequately reflect the memories of the hundreds if not thousands of friends mourning her around the globe and all over my Facebook feed?
Cynthia adopted her nom d’art in the late 60s when, as a shy UIC art student and rock ’n’ roll fan, she came up with a novel way to fulfill a homework assignment. The task: make a plaster cast of something solid that retains its shape. The solution: create a mold using an erect penis. After lots of experiments with molding materials and a few attempts with male friends, she began her formal body of work in 1968 by casting Jimi Hendrix.
Instantly notorious as Cynthia Plaster Caster, she went on to cast dozens of musicians of the era, including guitarist Harvey Mandel and Wayne Kramer of the MC5. In 1969 she began a stint in Los Angeles as a protege of Frank Zappa, though she stopped making casts in 1971. She got back into plaster in 1980, but from that point onward her output was intermittent. After she returned to Chicago, her subjects were frequently local musicians, including Bill Dolan from 5ive Style and Jon Langford from the Mekons. In 2000 she expanded into casting the breasts of women in indie rock, such as Stereolab vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Laetitia Sadier and cultishly adored outsider singer Jan Terri. By the 2010s, her casting had tapered off to next to nothing.
In the intervening decades Cynthia spoke about her work at the School of the Art Institute, exhibited her “sweet babies” in gallery spaces, and gave interpretive readings of her journals that rivaled the best spoken-word performances. In 2010 she even ran for mayor. And she was a fixture on the local music scene, her infectious enthusiasm for music and musicians undimmed over the years, even as her fortunes waxed and waned.
I first met Cynthia in 1998, when she appeared on all-ages cable-access dance show Chic-a-Go-Go. In a duet with Ratso, the show’s puppet cohost, she crooned the title song from Stanley Donen’s 1967 Swinging London Dudley Moore-as-Faust vehicle Bedazzled. I later interviewed her for the zine I ran with some friends and, a few years after that, for the Reader—the latter on the occasion of her launch of a website selling limited-edition plaster-of-paris replicas of some of her more famous works of art. She hoped to raise funds for her Cynthia P. Caster Foundation, established to help struggling musicians and artists.
But I really got to know Cynthia while working as a bartender at the Hideout, where she would always sip her red wine through a straw so as not to ruin her lipstick.
“When she would attend a show, we knew it was going to be a fantastic show, because she had such great taste in music,” says Hideout co-owner Katie Tuten, who cherished Cynthia as a friend and confidante. “When Cynthia was in the room, there was a warm glow because of the joy she emanated. . . . She was generationally transcendent.”
Cynthia’s ability to glide in the slipstream between generations, communities, and scenes was a common thread in my conversations this weekend with those grieving the loss of their friend. Born in 1947 on the south side and raised as an only child, Cynthia had a rough relationship with her conservative mother, whom she dubbed “the Warden.” As an adult she worked a day job as a typesetter, but she found kinship in the art and music counterculture.
“She had so many scenes that she was involved in,” says longtime friend Giulietta Karras, who was a teen in the late 1970s when she met Cynthia at a photo shoot for Praxis magazine. “There were so many Cynthia worlds that you didn’t know about. All of us saw a little piece of her, because she was a complicated person. . . . Her friends were her family.”
“She loved musicals and variety shows,” says her friend John Connors, who for years hosted a weekly salon screening old movies and episodes of the Dean Martin Show. Cynthia was a regular every Sunday, until COVID shut the world down, but it wasn’t until she fell ill a few years ago that Connors discovered the breadth 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 with whatsoever,” he says, laughing. “It was like, who are all these other people!”
“Whenever I met her I would always introduce 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 bits immortalized in Cynthia’s plaster. “And then the third or fourth time I did that, she was like, ‘I know who you are.’ And it really floored me. She loved Bobby and me as much as she loved Jimi Hendrix, and some of those things don’t quite go with each other, but OK!”
“She was ebullient,” says musician Chloe F. Orwell of the Handcuffs. “Although she was exclusive in her casts—she wouldn’t just cast anyone, you had to be asked—she was inclusive in her friendships. She was so willing to meet anyone, and she made everyone feel like they were her best friend.”
Cynthia’s kindness and open-hearted enthusiasms are legend; she would deploy a signature “Hey, doll” (“dawwwl,” in her throaty Chicago chortle) at anyone she liked, and she liked a lot of people. But her bubbly demeanor masked a spine of sturdier stuff. She was very smart and wickedly funny, with a keen eye for 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. “And she was very clear that these aren’t sex objects. A lot of people don’t realize that she was a great drawer. She has great sketches, brilliant, that she did over the years, of like George Harrison and Peter Tork—beautiful portrait sketches.”
“She loved talking about her ‘babies,’” says her friend Linda Lofstrom. “When she was offered to do a lecture at the Art Institute, it was then that she felt she had really arrived.”
“She did this incredibly brave thing,” says Jeff Economy, coproducer and cinematographer for Jessica Villines’s 2001 documentary Plaster Caster and (of course) a friend of Cynthia’s. “Her whole life was her art, and her ability to do what she did—regardless of whether she embraced the title [of artist] 100 percent of the time—is what matters.”
For years Cynthia worked on a memoir on and off, but she was never quite able to buckle down to the task of self-reflection. “She just wanted to keep on making her art, period,” says writer Mairead Case, who booked Cynthia to read from her journals at the Pitchfork Book Fort and worked with her for a spell on the memoir project. “I think that if she had to stop and write about it and reflect on it, it would take her out of the forward movement of it.”
A few years ago, Cynthia was reading from her journals at the Burlington when Kellner introduced her to no-wave singer and poet Lydia Lunch. They made plans to cast Lunch’s tits, but by then Cynthia was starting to fall ill. Then COVID intervened.
The isolation of the first months of the pandemic was hard on Cynthia, as it was on so many of the most vulnerable. Few outside her most intimate circle even knew she was ailing. But last year, as the world began to open up and she became sicker, her robust network of friends rallied to care for her, taking turns visiting with food or dropping by just to sing her some songs. Three weeks before her death, says Connors, “She was still very cogent—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 going on Facebook last week to confirm to the world the rumors of her close friend’s death. “She had a tough life, and if I were her, I probably wouldn’t be as optimistic,” Novak says. “But she was truly optimistic about a lot of things.”
“You know, you meet some people in the rock world, and some of ’em are so bitter and they’re so cynical and they’ve seen everything,” says Economy. “But she never lost the enthusiasm. She never lost the kind of adolescent thrill of doing this really naughty thing.”
“I think Cynthia was a stand-in for all the regular people who always wanted to be in the glamorous rock ’n’ roll lifestyle,” says Karras. “In a way she was a super groupie, but she was a nerdy groupie, an everyday girl. Can you believe, she went to the Factory once and met Andy Warhol? And you know, we’re not Edie, but we all can be Cynthia in a place like that.”
“She was Chicago, and she was ours in a very special way,” says Pomerleau. “And I’m going to miss her so much.”
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Cynthia Plaster Caster/ Just Wants to Talk