The United States of Alisa Toninato
When I arrived at Alisa Toninato’s studio, it was in a state. Or rather, the states were in the studio: all lower 48 of them, strewn about the workspace like a giant, 550-pound, cast-iron jigsaw puzzle.
The smell of sawdust, oil, and machinery filled the Monona warehouse. Alisa’s voice bounces with an enthusiasm and warmth you wouldn’t expect from someone who spends her time busting up old bathtubs and melting them down over a 2,650 degree Fahrenheit flame.
I was there to watch the assembly of Made In America, her cast-iron skillet rendering of the continental United States. She was preparing to transport the 10-by-7 foot piece to ArtPrize, an international art competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“I’m stuck on the tribal thing of it, but also the functionality that’s offered in iron. It can be beautiful and it can be utilitarian, as well,” she said, showing me around her studio. As Underground Kitchen regulars know, her pans look great on a wall; however, they function just as well on a stove.
“It has a social connection to it too. That’s important to me, to have something that’s not just seen. I encourage people to use them, for them to be an icebreaker. They’re super kitsch and I don’t apologize for it at all,” she said with a laugh.
Her love affair with iron began as an undergrad at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. She was studying sculpture when a professor invited her class to an iron pour.
“If you go to an iron pour, you either get bit by it and you do it all the time or you’re just like ‘this amount of work sucks.’ You have to break your own iron, break your own coke. You have to make your own furnace because they aren’t sold anywhere,” she explained.
And that’s just the iron pour itself. The first step: make the pattern. This is the most important part of the process; any imperfections in the pattern carry over to the metalwork.
For Made In America’s first two installments, the Midwest and the East Coast, Alisa made each wooden pattern by hand. To meet the ArtPrize deadline, she took her designs to Sector 67 in Madison, a community workspace with access to a CNC mill (basically: a large printer that cuts wood). In order to use the mill, however, she had to learn DOS programming.
“You have to tell it everything to do. Every possible movement that you think would be intuitive you have to program. I had a crash course on CNC mill writing. I was like, ‘Okay I have four weeks to get this done. I have 28 of these. Lets learn this DOSprogram.’ I had to be open to a new way of doing things,” she said.
Step Two: make the mold. Alisa uses a silica sand and resin chemistry mix, strong enough to withstand the heat of liquid iron, but malleable enough to biodegrade and break down in water.
Next: the iron pour. You need three things to get a fire hot enough to melt iron: a propane torch, a vacuum or leaf blower, and coke, a pure-carbon solid similar to charcoal. Once the temperature inside the furnace reaches 2,650 degrees Fahrenheit, the iron begins to melt. Eventually, the liquid is poured into the mold.
Alisa sources the iron for her artwork from old bathtubs, sinks, and radiators.
“Everything is recycled and free. I’ve never paid for my iron because people don’t know what to do with a big tub. We just smash it up and melt it down,” she explained.
To complete the remaining 28 states for Made In America, Alisa took the patterns to a commercial foundry in Minneapolis. With the help of friends and an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign, she was able to complete the remaining skillets in under a week.
“The iron-casting community is brilliantly unusual compared to other artistic circles and mediums, in that the spirit of 'more is merrier' thrives among this tribe of people.”
The “more the merrier” mentality is also a matter of necessity: at the very minimum, five people are needed to safely run an iron pour. However, there’s more to it than that.
Over Labor Day weekend, Alisa invited us to a bonfire to help season the cast-iron skillets, the final step before assemblingMade In America. The sun had just set when we arrived at her friend’s barn in DeForest. The smoky-sweet smell of burning animal fat filled the air.
In between slathering the states in lard, Alisa continued to explain what makes the iron-casting community unique: a commitment to sharing knowledge and a willingness to push each other forward instead of holding each other back - qualities most evident as the group worked together to the primitive song of fire crackling and metal on metal. We were happy to be able to call ourselves part of the tribe, even just for the night.
Here's a glimpse of the finished project. Made In America will be on display at DeVos Place Convention Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from September 21 through October 9. If you're in the area, go vote for her project!
Article and studio photos credit: Amelia Pisapia. Top photo: Emily Julka. Bottom Photo: FeLion Studios