When artists become entrepreneurs, it's often by accident. That was certainly the case for Alisa Toninato, Wisconsin-born sculptor and owner of Madison's FeLion Studios. Before she started making iron skillets, she had never made anything that could be marketed as products, or held in customers' hands.
In 2005, when Toninato graduated from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, she was focused on creating large-scale installation pieces. Many of them had moving mechanical parts and were embedded in live performances involving music or dance. She once constructed an enormous sewing machine, for example, and operated it from above the stage, in the rafters. They were wild shows, she recalls, and radically "anti-gallery."
In 2010, her focus completely changed. That was when Toninato produced her first iron skillet in the shape of Wisconsin.
The Wisco skillet, as it's now called, developed from a simple and whimsical idea. "I'm going to make my state and throw a handle on it," Toninato thought. "Boom. It'll be awesome."
She didn't plan on making more of them -- or anything remotely like it -- ever again. Just hours after she hand-cast that skillet, while she was on an airplane, looking at a map in an in-flight magazine, Toninato found herself sketching the form for a much larger gallery piece. Forty-eight pans, in the shape of the contiguous United States. But even then, she didn't view it as a business venture.
"This is the one gallery piece I'll do in my life," she thought. "This is it. It will be super random in my career."
That piece, known as "Made in America," ended up winning accolades and gaining Toninato a national reputation. It was featured on the last live taping of The Martha Stewart Show, was shown in Grand Central Station as one of 10 national honorees for the American Made Awards, and most recently traveled to Manhattan's Pier 92, where it was displayed as part of the Food Network's 20th anniversary party.
Now, from its humble beginnings as an artistic curiosity, the Wisco skillet has gone fully commercial. Last year, Toninato formed a company called the American Skillet Company to expand production of the Wisco skillet and create a distinctive brand for future designs and creations.
As if to make the commercial success of her work even more official, she is also collaborating with Lodge, the recognized industry leader in American cast iron cookware. Although the castings are made in Wisconsin, in the town of Kaukauna, they are now shipped down to Lodge in Tennessee, where they are cleaned, seasoned, labeled and packaged.
One day, Toninato hopes the entire process will be brought back to Wisconsin. But for now, her collaboration with Lodge is instrumental to her success.
Business was simply expanding too far beyond the scope of her smaller-scale artisanal practices. Where it used to take days at a time to hand-season the inventory -- several dozen pans, one piece at a time -- the pans are now shipped back to Wisconsin from Lodge in bulk, ready for delivery to customers and retailers.
Toninato has been surprised at how completely this product, which "evolved out of the barracks of backyard foundry experiments," has taken over her life. Aptly, she calls her process of becoming an entrepreneur "baptism by fire."
Although staying on top of the world of business development has been a challenge, Toninato believes it suits her personality. She describes herself as incredibly tenacious, obsessive and driven by a strong gut instinct. These qualities guided her artistic work, and they lend themselves to an entrepreneurial lifestyle.
Toninato continues to approach her commercial success with an artisanal spirit. When she first invented the Wisco skillet, she made the skillets out of individual sand molds that she designed in wood and, later, plastic. She and her business partner, Andrew McManigal, had to develop a seasoning process for the hand-crafted pans, using an oil gun and an outdoor grill.
It's been four years, she admits, since she has had time even to draw in her sketchbook. But having learned the craft by trial and error, under the mentorship of other cast iron artists, she remains deeply embedded in her artistic community. She still makes custom castings on commission by hand and seasons them fire-side, over a grill.
Toninato also continues to take a prominent role in one of the most important events in her artistic community: iron pours. Iron pours vary in size and location; some take place at farms, others in city parking lots. At each event, dozens of artisans help each other make their cast iron art. They come with sand molds, safety helmets and hammers for repurposing old tubs, radiators and sinks. Together, they fire up their furnace, fill it with their iron shards, and pour the molten iron into molds to make lamps and bowls and pans.
There are both functional pieces and fine art. Whatever their interests, the participants are known collectively as the "crew." And this nomenclature makes sense, because pouring molten iron would be unwieldy and dangerous without a large and collaborative group of workers.
While the labor is gritty and sweaty and hot, iron pours exemplify the local and communal spirit of cast iron work. This is especially true because they are open to the public. At one recent pour in early February, in a lot on the east side of Madison, despite freezing temperatures and snow, the crew poured nearly 50 heart molds for the public. The people who attended ranged from 4 to 80 years old. After helping people design and fill their molds, the artists filled their own work.
In the five hours from first tap to last ladle poured, Toninato said, they melted nearly 1,600 pounds of iron. It was both hard work and a celebration. In short, just the kind of gathering that continues to inspire her thriving business.
The Kitchen Gallery, 107 King St., has been selling the Wisco skillet longer than any retailer, since June 2012, and has sold over 140.
Owner Katrina Kelly thinks people in Wisconsin have a lot of home-state pride. "When people come in the shop, they immediately pick one up and start discussing everything they could bake in the shape of the state," she says.
Kelly also tells the story of one bride who recently received six Wisco pans for wedding gifts. She returned a few.
A full listing of retailers can be found on the American Skillet Company website, americanskilletcompany.com, along with a few recipes, including one from Weary Traveler chef Joey Dunscombe. Isn't it about time for some Wisconsin-shaped vegan cornbread?