It Ain’t Hummel

Cynthia Plaster Caster was the first to laugh when the School of the Art Institute of Chicago invited her to lecture on portraiture this week. “It’s an excuse for me to talk dick,” she says, “with a little bit of portraiture thrown in.”

“Dick” has been one of two driving forces in Plaster Caster’s life over the last three decades, the other being rock ‘n’ roll. In the mid-60s, when she was an art student at UIC trying to scam her way backstage at concerts, an assignment to make a plaster cast of “something hard” turned on a lightbulb over her head that’s yet to burn out. Calling herself and her groupie pals the Plaster Casters of Chicago, she found she could get access to hotel rooms by offering to immortalize the erections of rock stars.

“In those days people were ready to dip their dicks into anything,” she says. She experimented with various casting substances for two years, including sand and water, wax, clay, and even aluminum foil, but it wasn’t until she discovered the alginates used in dental molds that her scheme began to solidify. And even that method required some refinement. She remembers an unsuccessful cast of a member of Procol Harum: “There was an avalanche of pink, wet chunks cascading down his dick, and he called me insane. But it resulted in good sex afterward, which was the main objective. I was too shy to seduce rock stars and I thought if I got their zippers down by asking them to pose for me, then surely sex would transpire. In most cases it didn’t.”

Plaster Caster’s official body of work began with a 1968 cast of Jimi Hendrix’s impressive hard-on, and before long she became something of a celebrity herself. A 1969 issue of Rolling Stone included a splashy feature on her exploits, and to this day only her friend Pamela Des Barres rivals her for groupie notoriety. That same year she moved to Los Angeles on the advice of Frank Zappa, who told her there was “a lot more rock-star cock” out there. “I was a keypuncher when he discovered me,” she says, pointing out that she’s always had straight day jobs. “Frank was the first person that called me an artist. What I was doing was so effortless and fun that I didn’t think it could be art.”

Plaster Caster didn’t like LA’s obsession with physical perfection, and after a couple years she returned to Chicago–but without her collection, which by then included souvenirs from the Lovin’ Spoonful, Savoy Brown, the MC5, whose drummer, Dennis Thompson, came in the mold, and actor-crooner Anthony Newley. (“I was a fledgling Broadway groupie, but the Beatles saved me,” she explains.) She’d entrusted more than 20 of her sculptures to Zappa’s manager and business partner, Herb Cohen. Cohen suggested that their value would only increase with time, and with her permission he made some bronze copies, for a “timeless” look. Meanwhile, the sexual revolution went on the wane, rock went on the bloat, and a violent hotel-room experience with Led Zeppelin severely dampened Plaster Caster’s enthusiasm for her work. So she quit.

In the late 70s she made a partial return; she’s averaged a cast a year since. She says she was excited by punk rock, and that she sensed attitudes about sex becoming less conservative again. Her recent casts are of artists she enjoys genuine friendships with, such as Jon Langford of the Mekons, Mary Mary of Gaye Bykers on Acid, Martin Atkins of Pigface, and Chris Connelly. “When I go to shows nowadays I might get the tiniest bit sexually attracted to those guys onstage, but I don’t go to the hotels anymore,” says Plaster Caster, now 50. “I don’t have sex with men I hardly know, usually.”

In 1991 she sent for her old work, but Cohen refused to surrender it, claiming ownership. In the fall of that year she filed a lawsuit against him, but the case didn’t go to court for almost two years. Represented by attorney and former Big Black guitarist Santiago Durango, Plaster Caster won, although she felt drained by the experience. “I was on the witness stand for about two days, talking dick in a court of law to a very poker-faced female judge,” she says. “It wasn’t as much fun as it sounds.” She keeps the spoils in a bank vault downtown. “I go down there to visit them and dust them off, but not nearly enough.”

At a 1994 benefit for her legal fund Langford suggested she talk about her past and call it spoken word. Since then she’s performed regularly, at Lounge Ax, Metro, and London’s Disobey. She’s also just finished a short tour of the northwest with experimental accordionist Miss Murgatroid. Plaster Caster is also working on an autobiography, a gallery exhibit, and a “coffee table book of casting notes along with a brief history of plaster casting.” She’s also interested in casting women’s breasts. “I wouldn’t want to do it as one piece, but as separate tits so I could rearrange them,” she says. “It would serve a different purpose because I’m boringly straight. It’s just that I have a lot more female heroes these days.”

Plaster Caster’s lecture starts at 6 PM Monday in the SAIC auditorium, 280 S. Columbus. Admission for the general public is $5. Call 312-443-3711 for further information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Katrinia Witkamp.