Skillet artist goes national

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Mary Louise Schumacher/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Thursday, July 18, 2013

MILWAUKEE-While we hear a lot of talk about the intersection of art and industrial design these days, Alisa Toninato seems to embody the possibilities.

She fired up her first backyard foundry in Milwaukee with a group of friends and fellow artists. It was Thanksgiving Day 2009.

At the time, Toninato was inspired to create a cast iron skillet in the shape of the state of Wisconsin. It was the most honest and direct way to honor the history of industry and craft in the state, not to mention our love of food, that she could think of, she says.

By 2010, Toninato was getting encouragement from artists John Riepenhoff and Santiago Cucullo, as part of the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network mentoring program. That year, she showed the first cluster of her pans in a show, along with work by with Riepenhoff and Cucullu, at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, where she had been a graduate in sculpture in 2005.

She describes that event as a tiny and beautifully social one-night affair that included the making-and eating!-of Wisconsin-shaped pancakes with blueberries and lots of syrup. In 2011, her pans were part of a MIAD alumni exhibition curated by artist Keith Nelson (which is where I first spotted them).

Then, Toninato created a large art piece with the whole U.S. map fashioned from skillets in the shapes of the 48 contiguous states. That work, which she called "Made in America," got some nice attention at ArtPrize, the international art competition decided by popular vote in Grand Rapids, Mich. It also prompted Martha Stewart to make a short video about the budding pan company.

Since then, Toninato has been steadily producing skillets in the shapes of Midwestern states under the American Skillet Company brand. The Wisconsin frying pans, which are being made at the Roloff Manufacturing foundry in Kaukauna, are currently available through a handful of regional retailers: Duluth Trading Co. in Mount Horeb and Port Washington; Kitchen Gallery in Madison; Kitchen Window in Minneapolis; All Through the House in Stoughton; Cornucopia in Sturgeon Bay; Bekah Kate's in Baraboo; and The Local Store in Eau Claire.

Braise restaurant in Milwaukee has six of the Badger state skillets, which staffers use to feature seasonal specials on certain days.

Demand for the skillets has continued to grow. Now, Toninato is hoping to take her production of these limited-edition art pieces and produce them on a national level. It will take $40,000 to make the tools necessary to outfit a proper production line and to get the pans to market. She's planning to branch out-to New York-with her first run. The computer model for the Empire State skillet is ready for tooling, Toninato says.

She's launched a Kickstarter campaign to help raise the $45,000 she needs to launch the national product line. Go to Kickstarter.com and search for "American Skillet Company" for more information. Some of the giveaways include skillets and special edition cast iron art objects. The campaign ends 6:18 p.m. Friday, Aug 2.

Last updated: 9:22 am Thursday, July 25, 2013

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