Cast iron skillet designer Alisa Toninato would be more at home in another era — the industrial revolution rather than the digital revolution.
The Madison artist, 29, spends her time designing wooden patterns and molding them into cast iron. Old radiators, cast-off bathtubs and pipes are melted down and fired into her artwork.
“It’s a spectacular process,” said Toninato, who has small white scars around her neck (“I joke that I don’t need to wear a necklace”) from sparks of molten metal from iron pours. “This alloy is both brittle and strong. ... It’s not like bronze and aluminum that has a status attached to it. Iron is more ubiquitous and accessible but also more physical, and you have to be more invested in your process.”
Through blogs and word of mouth, Toninato is winning fans across the country for her latest project, a map of the lower 48 states called “Made in America,” with each state recreated as a cast iron skillet. Even the arbiter of home and kitchen design herself, Martha Stewart, took notice, and invited Toninato to appear on her show in April.
Now, the United States skillet art project will be accessible to local gourmets. Toninato’s foundry, FeLion Studios (a combination of the periodic symbol for iron and her astrological sign, Leo) is bringing a separate commercial product to market so cooks can bake up a Wisconsin-shaped cornbread, or show their state pride on their stove as they fry up their brats.
“We’ve gotten so much positive feedback from the art pieces that we’re just using our gut and taking this risk and putting our personal investment into this production line,” Toninato said. “We all believe in it. It’s totally the American spirit.
“Hopefully other people dig it.”
A GROUP EFFORT
Toninato first learned how to cast iron as a student at the Milwaukee Institute for Art & Design, where professors offered to teach the technique.
The student, who studied sculpture, found the gritty, dirty work appealing.
“It felt like Milwaukee,” she said. “Part of my aesthetic is very old-timey.”
After working as a sculptor for natural history museums and zoos (creating naturalistic rock walls, etc.), constructing props for bands and a stint at Franconia Sculpture Park in Minnesota, Toninato decided she needed her own furnace and crew. A sculpture professor friend had started to build a furnace but never finished it; he gave her the 3-foot-tall steel cylinder to get her started.
“An iron pour is very collaborative,” said Toninato, who has become part of a Midwest network of iron artists who routinely haul their iron to group pours and then work together to cast their projects. There are 20-30 people at a typical pour.
“It’s almost like an Amish barn raising,” she said.
Projects are first made into a wood pattern, and then a sand mold is created to cast the pieces. The mold can only be used once.
A small pour involves 2,000 pounds of iron, and the temperature of the furnace must reach 2,800-3,000 degrees to cast. To get to that temperature takes about an hour and a half before work can begin.
“Once you get to the temperature, you want to make it worth it,” she said.
TODAY WISCONSIN, TOMORROW THE NATION
The idea for the Wisconsin skillet came about on Valentine’s Day 2010 in Milwaukee. Toninato had invited neighbors to participate in an iron pour at her studio to help educate the community about her work.
In response to people selling food (toast, sandwiches, etc.) on eBay that claimed to have the image of the Virgin Mary’s face in it, Toninato had made a waffle iron with Jesus’ face in it. She mulled making a tongue-in-cheek series of face plates of iconic people for waffle irons, calling it “Breakfast of Champions.”
But for the pour, she thought about how “I was all about Wisconsin and home-grown enterprise.” So she opted to make a Wisconsin-shaped skillet, but didn’t have time to design the waffle part.
“I didn’t expect it to work at all,” she said.
It did, and her jaw dropped.
“Everyone wanted one,” she said. “It’s so marketable because it’s funny.”
Her next idea was to make the whole Midwest out of skillets and thought, “This would be awesome as a map.”
That summer, Toninato moved to Madison to be with her boyfriend, carpenter Andrew McManigal. He helped her sand all the patterns of the states, prepare them for casting and built the backboard and frame for the finished piece.
The result was “Made in America,” a map of 48 individually cast iron skillets measuring roughly 10 by 7 feet and weighing nearly 550 pounds. It was first exhibited at ArtPrize, a prestigious art competition in Grand Rapids, Mich., in September 2011.
Before fire demolished its restaurant last summer, Underground Kitchen featured Toninato’s Wisconsin skillet as well as her skillet sculpture of the Midwestern states on its walls. The skillets survived the fire with no ill effects.
“The Wisconsin pan was always front and center and what people saw and talked about,” said Jonny Hunter, one of the members of Underground Food Collective, which ran Underground Kitchen and is planning a new restaurant called Forequarter. “We’ve never had a logo with Kitchen, but that’s kind of what happened.”
After the fire, local design firm Art & Sons created a T-shirt and print of the Wisconsin skillet as a fundraiser for the food collective. Shirts sold for $20 and prints for $40, helping the restaurant maintain some cash flow.
In addition to Forequarter, UFC is planning a second east side restaurant and wants Toninato’s work to be prominently featured.
“She will do some original pieces,” Hunter said. And some of her artwork will be worked into the “integrity and structure of the space.”
As for the Wisconsin skillet, “everyone who sees it sees it as art, but it also draws them in because of their interest in food and the aesthetics of cast iron.
“The piece’s strength is in its originality,” Hunter said. “It will always be Alisa Toninato’s piece.”
Earlier this year, staffers from “The Martha Stewart Show” found Toninato through Etsy.com and invited her to be on the show. Toninato and McManigal repaired his old van for the trip and drove the piece across the country.
It took seven hours to mount the massive sculpture to the wall of the studio. The project fit well into the show’s theme, which centered on the release of Stewart’s new cookbook, “Martha’s American Food.”
Toninato was happy to discuss her work with Stewart, but terrified of any cooking banter.
“I’m the worst cook. I barely make coffee for myself,” Toninato said. “I can make cookware. Don’t ask me to make you lunch.”
Martha made a clambake, which puzzled the artist. “I thought it was a clam cake,” Toninato said. She also mistook a piece of seaweed for green beans, but didn’t say anything. The couple were even invited to a cast party after the show.
BRINGING IT HOME
When Toninato makes the individual state skillet art pieces, prices range from a couple hundred dollars to a couple thousand for states like Texas. But with this new line of Wisconsin skillets — which are made at an iron foundry with more capacity in the Twin Cities — the price is lower to be more accessible to a larger audience. Illinois and Minnesota are scheduled for production in early fall, and New York and Texas by January.
The Wisconsin skillets can be ordered online and will be in retail stores at the end of the month. Stephanie Kessenich, co-owner of the Kitchen Gallery, 107 King St., said an employee first spotted the skillets on a website and mentioned that “this would be something fun to carry.”
The Kitchen Gallery is selling the skillets for $120 apiece. Kessenich likes that the skillets bring form and function together with artistry.
“Wisconsinites, we do love our state,” Kessenich said. “It’s thrilling when we get an opportunity to bridge artistry with serviceable product for the kitchen. It’s a real treat.”
While her business partner Kevin Johnson assists with the commercial part of the business, Toninato is also pursuing her art. She’s currently working on a commission for a large food service company, another skillet map made of urethane foam board.
As for “Made in America,” Toninato would like to sell it, or display it somewhere like a museum.
“Martha mentioned the Smithsonian, which I think is a fantastic idea,” she said.