We are standing just feet from a tall, rusted-out furnace who’s contents are slowly climbing past 2,000 degrees fahrenheit. Every few moments a person adorned with a large metallic outfit removes a sand plug from a hole near the furnace’s base and a hot, glowing, molten liquid pours out, starting the grass in which it lands momentarily aflame. After commenting on the molten material, and plugging up the opening again, the silver-clad artists lift up their protective masks, grab their beer, and resume their previous conversation. The furnace burns on, rippling the sun-set horizon beyond it with heat pouring out of its top. Everyone beyond the furnace bustles about with their respective tasks: strapping down molds, braking apart old radiators and bath tubs, piling fuel into buckets, and making last-minute preparations while the furnace burns on, growing hotter and (from my perspective as an outsider) angrier.
Sarah and I met Alisa Toninato only 3 days prior at her Madison, WI studio. Hailing from Milwaukee, WI, she is an artist of many disciplines, but currently her studio is adorned with a hand-welded furnace and old iron appliances awaiting to be reborn as her art. We found her through her current project: a collection of cast iron pans cast in the shape of the contiguous 48 United States. Alisa was making final preparations for an “iron pour” on a beautiful farm in Decorah, IA., a yearly family reunion of sorts, where some of the Midwest’s most talented iron artists meet for an extended weekend to share their work, catch up, and pour iron.
Cows and horses graze just up the hill from the barn that looks over the furnace that is now emitting fire and sparks. It is opened periodically and filled with layers of iron chips and coke, a clarified furnace fuel. A massive ladle sits nearby, being heated with a torch to keep it glowing red. Deep into the night the diligent artists tap the furnace, fill their ladle with molten iron, and pour mold after mold. Alisa has only one pan to cast, but is here to help as many people she can, many of whom are part of a new generation of metal artists. “This is where I got my start, where I cultivated a love for iron.” Alisa explains.
“This is where I got my start, where I cultivated a love for iron.”
“I feel that the cookware that I’m doing right now is just a tool for a social experience, That they function as a starting point for people, and I love having that very small interjection. The art relies on peoples experience of it and how they jam on that.”
We met up with Alisa two months later at her studio for a Madison iron pour. Many of the artists from Decorah are here, and this time Alisa has an entire pallet of molds waiting to be poured. The sound of molten metal being poured into sand is something that is at the same time intimidating and enticing. It is controlled chaos. As it squeals and hisses into the crevices of the mold and takes shape, the iron is so beautiful that it’s easy to forget how dangerous it is until a trickle overflows from the molds entrance and lands on the pallet below, igniting it in an instant. The night comes to a close with a parking lot full of cooling molds, waiting to be opened in the morning.