Q&A with the fiery founder of American Skillet Co.

Alisa Toninato to hold 9th annual iron pour event
Q&A with the fiery founder of American Skillet Co.
Photo courtesy of American Skillet Co.
Alisa Toninato of American Skillet Co.

In 2011, metal artist Alisa Toninato debuted with partner Andrew McManigal a massive installation of cast-iron pans in the shape of individual states to create a map of the United States. The work of art was part of the ArtPrize exhibition in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an event Toninato says was “a wacky and awesome extreme version of publicly curated public art.”

From there, American Skillet Co. was born, and online sales of the cast-iron state pans really started heating up. Calls from Cracker Barrel and Martha Stewart soon followed. High-profile brands wanted a piece of the map–they wanted the skillets created by Madison-based maker Toninato, whose first skillet she ever made was a Wisconsin-shaped one.

Toninato works with piping-hot iron to create her signature skillets. First, she breaks down iron by hand before dumping the pieces into an outdoor furnace heated to more than 2,000 degrees. She then taps the molten mixture and pours it into a sand mould. Toninato holds an annual workshop in Madison to share the fascinating process with others and allow them to take home their own creations. This year’s event is Saturday, Feb. 10. (More event info below.)

I was invited to visit Toninato at FeLion, her studio near Fitchburg, and I learned a little about turning molten metal into something I could cook with. This is an edited version of our conversation.

Tell me about that first pour.
My first pour was in 2001. I was a freshman at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. It was like “Fantasia.” I didn’t know what to make. It was fall, and Milwaukee traditionally has all of its light poles wrapped in typical autumn stuff. They had these grasses and corn cob stalks. So I totally stole one of those [and] made a mould of this arrangement.

We [fellow sculpture students] went to Concordia University [north of Milwaukee] into a marshy, wooded area and it felt very mysterious. It was the only place that my professor could do an iron pour at the time, because iron wasn’t technically a curriculum metal to work on in art school. I went back there with my mould and there were all these trucks and kids from other schools. I thought, what have I been missing? It was my first step into the “underground.” It was thrilling going off campus to an unknown field in back of a school campus that we didn’t belong to, just to break iron radiators and make a hot mess.

And the furnace–it was this hot, hacked together monstrosity. You can’t just pick one of these out from a catalog. You have to make it yourself. Students had pulled together all these radiators and cast-iron bathtubs and all these kids were breaking it all down into pieces. It took a little mini army of people to do it. The energy of it was immediate to me. I was like, “Holy sh*t! I love these people, this medium. I love what’s going on.”

The casting that I made–I had no conceptual connection to it. I just wanted to bring something to the pour. And the casting came out and it was one of the most incredible things I’d ever seen. I think there’s inherent excitement in making duplicates of things from ice cubes to chocolate moulds.

It was the detail that I got in iron. Before this I thought iron was kind of a gritty metal. But every little corn cob, every little crease in the dry stalk and in the joints that the stalk grows out of–that all came out like a perfect bone fragment–like an archeological discovery. It was a primitive kind of way of doing something. Then the seed was planted in me–I wondered, “How would people interact with my art?” Looking back, it was the gateway for me into cookware–the undercurrent. I was interested in making something that functioned beyond the pedestal. I found iron to be essential and extremely relevant.

I immediately thought, “I want to dominate this.” It takes 2,400 degrees to get molten metal. It’s spectacular and intense; an extreme of things. Hot and fast. Hard and heavy. I love working with a tight community of people and being a part of big orchestrations.

I was feeling insane pride and felt like I was living the American Dream. I was part of that smart undervalued navigational sensibility that artists have combined with that unique Midwestern work ethic. Several years passed before I had that second pour. Following that pour, I went back to the idea of cookware and made a Wisconsin state-shaped skillet.

What was the first cookware item you made before the state skillet?
I was around 18 to 20 years old and was amazed at how items like potato chips that looked like Jesus were being sold on Ebay. I was absolutely appalled and intrigued by this market happening online. In a tongue-in-cheek way, I thought I should make a waffle iron with a mould of Jesus’ face. At that age, I was a punk-ass kid filled with cynicism. Still, I was starting to develop an exciting skill set.

So the first cookware was a waffle maker for me–with Jesus’ face. I still have it. I went to thrift stores for waffle makers and began pulling them apart. It was the start of graphic cookware for me. I was using cookware as a way of learning mould-making and casting.

There are a trillion variables in foundry work–it’s so easy to fail. The first couple of skillets I was building had to be scrapped. Andrew [her partner] kept asking me why am I doing this? He’d say, “You’re cut up, burned and beat.” And I’d say, “Because I know that I can get this right.”

Cookware after all these years had always been my inspiration. Cookware brings people together. It’s something that iron does. Food does. It’s a metaphor for things I think are important and meaningful.

Now that you have an exciting business to run, how do you maintain your artistic side?
I’m in the office a whole lot. It’s hard, but I find that my creative urges have shifted roles, morphed into the business. Doing books is completely outside my creative wiring, but I have to use my creativity to understand it because spreadsheets are so abstract to me. I have to treat them like abstract problems. I use my creativity when trying to figure out process and how to make that process flow and feel good to me.

I think that’s why I do iron pours like Pour’n Yer Heart Out. Orchestrating this annual event takes 100 percent of my effort and gets my energy back. They’re not easy and they dominate my time. But I get to invite my tribe back in and create space and room for creativity.

EVENT INFO: The Ninth Annual Pour’n Yer Heart Out Community Iron Pour takes place at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 10 at Sector 67 (2100 Winnebago St.). The first tap of molten metal will take place around noon. Consecutive pours will occur every 15 minutes until all moulds are filled.

Prior to the event, community members can purchase sand moulds that they then get to design and carve themselves. The hearts will be cast with iron that has been donated or salvaged from local businesses and community members.

For more information visit felionstudios.com/2018-workshops/.