Two summers ago, five days past her due date, Alisa Toninato stood at the outer edges of an iron pour in Cambridge, Wisconsin. She was uncomfortable, and not just because her daughter, Rhea, wouldn’t arrive for another week. She wanted to get in on the action.
“Of course I didn’t leather up,” Toninato says. “But I went out there with a shovel and was like, ‘Okay, we gotta take the castings off and put the new ones on and break it out and set it over there.’ People were looking at each other like, ‘What is the pregnant lady doing here?’”
Staying away from the flames is not Toninato’s style. A metal artist, sculptor, and educator based in Madison, Wisconsin, the 36-year-old lives for the sparks in the furnace. In her cast iron art practice, FeLion Studios, she works with a medium so bright it hurts to look at—2,500-degree liquid metal pouring like syrup from her ladle into intricately carved molds.
“The art that I like to do has always been kinetic, it’s always been performative,” Toninato says. “Something that you use, touch, beat up, roll, kick, share, give away, take back. It’s all of those things that are not on a pedestal. I’ve never made work that’s sat.”
Out of the frying pan…
Toninato is best known for her state-shaped cast iron cookware, born out of an iron sculpture of interlocking skillets in the shape of the continental United States. Described by Toninato as “an homage to the DIY scene,” the 9-by-6-foot “Made in America” made its debut at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2011. It caught the eye of Martha Stewart, who featured the sculpture on television twice; the second time, she gave Toninato the first-ever American Made award.
The publicity bump led Toninato and her partner, Andrew McManigal, to take the leap into mass production. In 2012, they debuted a Wisconsin-shaped skillet. They have since added the continental U.S. and seven individual states (Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Texas, Oklahoma—a special order from “Pioneer Woman” Ree Drummond—and New York). After she finishes each design and develops the process, the pans are cast in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, at Roloff Manufacturing before coming back to Madison to be finished and seasoned.
American Skillet Company sells pans at some 65 retailers nationwide, including Crate and Barrel and Dillard’s (seasonally) and dozens of gift shops, as well as a handful of restaurants in Wisconsin. From the outside, it looks like American Skillet Company is the money-maker and Toninato’s smaller, commission-driven FeLion Studios is the loss-leading passion project. The opposite turns out to be true.
“FeLion has always been my breadwinner. I’m disgruntled with American Skillet,” Toninato says. “It just costs so much money to run it. It’s a ‘go big or go home’ industry. If you’re not at a certain volume you’re just going to die, which is sort of what we feel like we’re doing right now.”
At FeLion, Toninato has gotten consistent work. She designed a branded, raised fajita skillet for a restaurant in Austin, Texas, and replicated it for other clients. She did a custom curly-tailed pig pan for chef Dan Fox’s SloPig event, a celebration of heritage hogs that ran for several years in Madison. In 2017 she got a commission to make a sewer grate for the packaging of a custom-bound first edition of the book “It” by Stephen King. Each hand-stitched, leather-bound edition sold for $1,500.
American Skillet Company, despite all its visibility and enthusiastic press, has never turned a profit. “American Skillet is exhausting. It’s not fun anymore,” Toninato says. “It’s like an endless amount of work. I might just close American Skillet, and I’m not sad about that.” Toninato has also considered selling it to a larger cast iron producer or striking a new partnership to scale the company up, but whether she closes shop, sells, or doubles down, one thing’s for certain—the company won’t be around in the same form a year from now.
…and into the fire
Just like a chef may want to take a single restaurant concept and turn it into a franchise, it’s not uncommon for an artist to want to reproduce her design. The challenge with scaling up American Skillet Company is that the pans are still very expensive to produce. You can buy a Wisconsin-shaped skillet for $130 online, but for American Skillet to launch a new state into production costs $30,000 and takes months to perfect.
Gabriel Akagawa, an adjunct assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has photographed Toninato several times for his Foundry Tree project, an online database of 1,100 iron-casting artists. He understands why FeLion outstripped American Skillet.
“On the art end, you can charge a lot because it’s a one-off,” Akagawa says. “It’s commission work or you’re dealing with something that’s community-based and you know how much to charge to make it happen. […] This is a high-end utilitarian object. It’s not a one-off and it’s not high production. It’s somewhere in between.”
An order at the foundry takes four months to complete, so Toninato and McManigal stock 200 to 300 editions of each pan at their Madison workshop. That stockpile is what they would sell down if and when they call time of death on American Skillet Company. Regardless, Toninato is planning a series of collaborations with Sitka Salmon Shares and Ian’s Pizza, and has a three-month pop-up starting this September at the Garver Feed Mill on Madison’s east side.
The FeLion name is a combination of the periodic symbol for iron (Fe) and Toninato’s summer astrological sign, Leo. She has a tattoo of the FeLion Studios logo on her right shoulder.
It’s through FeLion that Toninato hosts iron pours twice a year, community gatherings that draw art lovers, students, and families who design their own molds and see them cast in reclaimed, melted-down iron. In February 2019, just as the polar vortex was whistling its way back up north, Toninato busted out the furnaces in the parking lot outside a nightclub on Madison’s east side for the 10th annual Pour’n Yer Heart Out.
Toninato picked up some of her skills at the furnace from Kelly Ludeking of KRL Metals and Ironhead Sculptural Services in St. Paul. Toninato calls Ludeking her mentor. Ludeking calls her his little sister. “People just don’t have an idea of how things are made,” Ludeking says. “Once they come out to iron pours, it changes their perceptions. If they see the sand casting, mold making, watch her make the pattern in wood in advance, it’s mind-blowing how much time that takes. If she took the hourly rate into account the pans would be three times as much.”
At the time of publishing, FeLion and friends planned to attend this year’s Midwest Fire Fest Iron Pour, scheduled for Saturday, July 27 (three days before Rhea’s birthday), 25-pound ladles filled with up to 100 pounds of molten iron in hand. These pours and workshops light the way ahead for Toninato. She wants to invest in FeLion’s equipment for aluminum and bronze casting, “to do hyper-real custom stuff on a smaller scale, quicker.”
“Aluminum and bronze is super easy-peasy, I can do it myself,” she says. “I don’t need an army of people to come in and help me run the furnace. Iron’s like a WWF wrestling match and aluminum is like, let’s dance to this elevator music! It can happen anywhere, it’s easy, and it inspires people the same way even though it’s not as fiery and sparky and elevated as iron.”