Milwaukee’s Alisa Toninato is the Sufjan Stevens of cast-iron pans
The local sculptor embarks on an ambitious project melding conceptual art, kitchen wares, and the continental United States
Can an artist be a crafter? Can a crafter be an artist? These are two questions that many contemporary makers are asking themselves as they straddle the line between homespun and gallery-ready creations. One of these artists is Milwaukee-based sculptor Alisa Toninato, who recently embarked on an ambitious project of creating cast-iron pans in the shape of all 48 contiguous U.S. states.
Her first pan, appropriately enough, was in the shape of Wisconsin. It was created on a dare, but as she pondered the Dairyland-shaped object, she began to wonder if she could apply conceptual ideas to a utilitarian kitchen tool. Like a craftier Sufjan Stevens, Toninato’s new plan is to create 47 more pans in the shape of every other state, save Alaska and Hawaii. All of the pans will be created to scale, while their handles cantilever out in different directions, overlapping the borders of neighboring states. Toninato’s intention is for the pans to be used for cooking, but she visualizes the series as a gallery installation as well.
A handmade cast iron pan in the shape of a state might not seem like a conceptual art piece, but to Toninato, that’s part of the appeal. She’s interested in exploring the ephemeral nature of how objects change over time and hopes that the collector who ends up with the pan will actually use it to cook—and by cooking with it will enter into a performance with the pan. “Because it is such a recognizable object, I like to use this to challenge the general sense of elitism in art, especially as a ‘performative’ sculpture,” Toninato says. “These are conventionally functional skillets. It’s not because I have made them myself that constitutes them as art. It is the way in which I have tried to compose their functions as a social tool with design sensibilities.
“This skillet has a symbol in it that makes people treat it differently, and that little change in attitude and attention to how it’s hung is where it leaps into a different world than just your cupboard shelves with the rest of the pots.”
After finishing the Wisconsin pan, Toninato moved on to creating the seven other states that make up the Midwest. Her plan is to start working down the east coast, casting states until all are fabricated. “I’m a machine when it comes to endurance-art projects,” she says. “I love to build big, even when the pieces are small.”
Toninato hopes this series will infiltrate the homes of people who wouldn’t normally buy art. “It’s a powerful little tool that brings people together, changes the scene, and opens up some inquiry upon how this sculpture is functioning beyond what a normal fry pan otherwise would,” she says. “In this way, it transcends being a cooking tool and its shape and function become something more meaningful.” You can find Toninato and all eight of her Midwestern pans at the Fine Furnishings Show at the Harley Davidson Museum, Oct. 1–3.