In a scene straight out of childhood, I was sitting at the breakfast table with my father the Big Baxter, both of us with noses buried in the morning newspaper. It was one of the last times we performed this ritual and Hong Kong where it began, further back than I can remember, was far away in both space and time. But, just as he always had, Bax looked up from the paper as I arrived, poured me a cup of tea and peeled off the front and back pages, depositing them on my plate as I sat down.
When I was younger he would pull out the comics and, on Sundays, he would bring them to me so I could read them in bed. He made similar visits to everyone in the household, a section of newspaper to keep each of us quiet for as long as possible while he read the rest.
He would bring us tea, swapping newspaper sections among us as he went from room to room, pointing out stories that might interest us.
This time we were in San Francisco, bathed in California sunshine, towards the end of my last visit to him in December 2002.
I’d read all the news in my first and last few pages of the San Francisco Chronicle and Bax was showing no inclination yet to hand over the middle so I turned my attention to the listings.
In one of those glorious movie moments two things happened simultaneously. From behind his newspaper Bax asked what I was going to do with my day. And I saw a small notice that an exhibition of works by the artist Cynthia Plaster Caster was on show at somewhere called the ArtRock Gallery.
For a moment I marvelled at this late and unlooked for opportunity to troll Dad, wondered briefly if it was right to do so in his current poor state of health, and then went for it.
“This,” I said, and handed him the page with my thumb under the item in question.
It should have been enough but once again Bax, the only reader I ever knew with an appetite more voracious than mine, surprised me with the things he didn’t know.
“Who’s Cynthia Plaster Caster?”
Done like a dinner, Dad. It had always been our pleasure – my sister and I – to educate him on the finer points of pop culture and I was desperately sorry she was going to miss this one.
“How can you not know about the Plaster Casters?”
Years of practice had perfected the mix of shock and disappointment in my tone, guaranteed to make him tilt his head and lean forward – looking for all the world like a hunting dog sniffing the wind.
But wait, there was more. “I’m sure I read about them in your old copies of Rolling Stone.”
He was going crazy now. Who were these casters and how had he missed them?
They were artists, I told him, who documented some of the greatest rock legends of all time. Thanks to Cynthia Plaster Caster, an important part of Jimi Hendrix that otherwise would have been lost to us forever has been preserved for eternity, just to give you one prominent example.
He looked confused. I explained further, stringing it out as long and as far as I could before understanding dawned and the hunting light went out in his eye. “Oh Sally!” There was a rustle and a snap of newsprint as he disappeared back into the morning’s news.
The ArtRock Gallery, at 893 Folsom Street, was easy enough to find and it wasn’t until I got there that I experienced a moment’s doubt, not about seeing the exhibition but because I was on my own. It suddenly seemed like the sort of thing I should do in company, preferably my sister’s.
Then I remembered I was 40 and old enough to go and look at penises if I wanted to. Yes, if you hadn’t worked it out already I just trolled you too.
The entrance was lined with bins of rock posters and other memorabilia and the gallery space was down a few stairs next to a counter at which sat a near-perfect copy of The Simpsons’ Comic Shop Guy.
“Hi there! Have you come to see the penises?”
“Yes, yes I have,” I said boldly and handed over the entry fee. It was just me and him in the place but I maintained a confident swagger as I launched myself down the stairs and into a midst of glass cases.
The Plaster Casters began in the mid-60s when Cynthia and her best friend Pest were given an art school assignment to cast a solid object in plaster. Young girls being what they are, they hit on the idea of persuading their favourite musicians to plop their plonkers in a bucket of goo for posterity.
You may remember a particularly terrible film called The Banger Sisters which shied away from the whole genius point of the exercise, swapping plaster for Polaroids. Seriously.
According to Legend, many of the works failed to display their subjects to maximum advantage, due to the nature of the mould-making process. There was, again according to Legend, an exception and a most notable one at that, the aforementioned Jimi Hendrix.
Of course I was here to see the penises.
Laid out before me in each gleaming case was row upon row of neatly labelled white blobs. As a practised museum-goer I started at one end and worked my way slowly along, studying each exhibit gravely and carefully reading the attached notes.
I was sure my progress was being closely monitored by Comic Shop Guy from his perch above the gallery and I kept my eyes firmly focused on each object in front of me, even as one exhibit in particular loomed ever larger in my peripheral vision.
Rock n Rollers, the Legend is True. Jimi Hendrix stands tall and proud among the pantheon in his person as in his music.
But the real power of the show was the cumulative effect of all that vulnerability. Each short curled slug, each strange little corkscrew laid out for review – raw recruits to the Sexual Revolution, the one that was supposed to set us free, man.
I can report that they were strangely affecting. And, in a word to the worried no, they didn’t make me laugh. They were beautiful, each one a soft curling question looking for an answer, the one that’s still blowing in the wind.
Further reading ( Mind the links! Might not be entirely suitable for work):
A review of the Cynthia Plaster Caster exhibition – San Francisco Weekly, 27 November 2002
The Banger Sisters – Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat
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© Sally Baxter 2015
This post was also published at the Australian Independent Media Network