Alisa Toninato

'Made in America' artist waxes on the Madison art scene, business and mortality

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Spending a couple hours with Alisa Toninato, owner of FeLion Studios in Madison, is pure delight. No story of hers is complete without grandiose hand gestures, captivating facial expressions and, if you’re lucky, a pretty darn good New York accent. I was giggling practically the whole time I was at her studio.

Besides being a total badass iron artist, she is also an inspiring entrepreneur. Her and her partner, Andrew, run the FeLion art studio as well as “Cook with Pride,” a commercial product line of state-shaped cast iron skillets. She forgoes conventional business wisdom and makes decisions based on her guts and intuition.

Alisa considers her mortality on almost a daily basis, always pays her rent on time, and loves to watch ferns grown.  She seems wise beyond her years and yet eternally youthful. Before art, her passion was horses, and she hopes to someday own some acreage and a couple horses in “her third life,” (which to her means when she’s 60). “That’s my only plan,” she says.

Read a part of her interview below, and be sure to check out her Kickstarter project (running July 1 – 30th).

I know you used Kickstarter to fund part of your “Made in America” work. What are your general thoughts on Kickstarter as a way to fund art projects?

I’m a huge fan of it. I feel like Kickstarter and crowd funding in general is pretty close to the new norm for anybody like a start-up, entrepreneur or artists. The convention to take out a loan isn’t realistic anymore. They have made it such a pain in the ass to take out a loan and jump through the hoops. And if you are a company that has an idea and it’s is growing really fast, you don’t have time to wait 2 years on a product development because things move so quickly.

The DIY scene is more than an underground now, and Kickstarter is the public platform for people to share their ideas and inspiration. And people on a human level really gravitate towards it.

I think it’s really saturated right now, but it’s amazing.

Why we’re launching the Kickstarter project is to help fund the new state in the commercial series. And that’s going to be New York. We’re working with a new manufacturer for that, Lodge Manufacturers. They’re down in Tennessee. They’re kind of the cast iron cookware company. That’s what they do. So they really have it down. They’re such an awesome company. They’re the only American company doing cast iron cookware.  So we’re hooking up with them. And to do minimum runs with them is really high. We couldn’t front that money. It’s a pretty giant chunk of change, which is why it’s stressful for me.  It’s kind of one of those things, we don’t really want to take out a loan / (slash) we can’t.

So the earlier ones were produced elsewhere?
So these ones: Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois, were produced up at Kaukauna, WI. There’s a foundry called Roloff Manufacturing. They’re a little company; they’re really awesome. They do smaller runs and smaller pieces. They tend to take their time and like to invest in unique projects and things that are a little more high maintenance. So they’ve been really awesome and we’re going to stay with them. They’re our guys for those 3. And then everything’s moving on after that so we don’t bog them down.

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Name 3 adjectives that describe your personality.
So my positive attributes are that I’m pretty passionate, and very tenacious and relatively fun. Relatively fun.  There’s sometimes when I’m all business. It’s like a work hard / play hard kind of thing. My negative: I’m very critical, stubborn and nervous. Yeah that’s not good.


What is your first memory?
Orange shag carpeting in my house.  I think I was 2. And my brother breaking a violin string. I have all these very visceral memories, like tangible, tactile memories of this house, maybe because I was crawling around so much. I remember my mom had a violin and my brother was pretending like he knows how to play and I’m laughing. And then the string broke and it coiled up, and I was terrified, like “You’re in so much trouble! We’re both in big trouble!”

Did you get in trouble?

No, my mom was like, “It’s OK. You can restring these.” My mom’s very cool. She’s amazing actually. She’s very intuitive.

What is the best gift (or one of the best gifts) you have ever received?

So I’m a big fan of experience gifts. Like people give you stuff that’s not tangible. My mom had given me season tickets for the orchestra in Milwaukee. It was the coolest! What a unique gift. I brought a different friend every time. I love Milwaukee.

What is your favorite plant or flower?
Ferns definitely. We have a whole bunch of them in the back yard and I love watching them grow, how they just unravel themselves. I want a whole yard of ferns.

What makes you sad?
I think in general, I can hardly watch movies. Movies are the most powerful things for me. Not that they ALL make me sad, but when there’s an injustice or a bullying movie.

And getting yelled at. it doesn’t really happen that often, but when it does, I’m just crushed. I’m like “What did I do wrong? I just try to do good all the time.”  And that’s why it’s great to work for yourself. If you screw up you already know, you don’t need anyone yelling at you. Self-criticism is hard enough.

a-helmetsHow often do you think about your mortality?
Every day. Seriously. I’m such a hyperchondriac. I was getting all these headaches, and started thinking, “What if it might be a blood clot.” Andrew, my boyfriend said “I think that half your body would go limp.” And when they say that, I start really paying attention to half my body and think there’s something tingling. I might be losing feeling. It’s probably not healthy how much I think about it. I think I even dream about how I’m going to die. It’s always a car accident or a bridge went out. Or like propane bottles exploding. These are internal fears.

Were you voted “most likely to X” in high school?
Actually it was “artist.” I was like, “How did they know that?” because I didn’t do a lot of art in high school. My last two years were my inaugural years of getting into a visual arts practice. Because I was riding horses all up to that point. My whole family thought I was going to be an equine vet.

What is something in your home you can’t live without?
I think I could live without a lot of things. The one thing that came to mind is my computer, which has all of my visual history. It’s almost like a sketchbook at this point. Everyone asks “Why don’t you just back it up?” Well, because I don’t back up very diligently. If that got lost, I would be devastated but of course I could keep living.

What rule do you always follow no matter what?
I always pay rent on time. I freak out if I don’t have my finances in order. I have an amazing credit score.

If you could have any job in the world (other than being an artist), what would it be?
I would probably be working with horses. I’d probably just be mucking stalls. Taking horses out. Riding them. You know, the good life. Horses were my first passion. They taught me a  lot of things about intuition. I think that was my first lesson in listening without language. So it was a really powerful connection for me. Or a musician.

Do you have plans to buy a horse?
We (meaning my partner Andrew and I) both would love to live in the countryside on some acreage and property. It would be like a live/work situation. I think eventually, I would totally have 2 horses. But that’s an investment. You really need to have a lifestyle where you can be at home a lot. We travel a lot now. So I think it will be my third life. Are you on your second one now or just your first? My first one still. I’m just 30. But I think that it’s going to go until 40 and then something’s going to change. And I’ll have a second career, and when I’m 60 I’ll get my horses. That’s my only plan.

About Art & Madison:

furnaceHow long have you been making art?
My background was an artist working with very non-sellable artworks. Very installation-based, ephemeral, kinetic. I was way different back in the day. I was way more interested in these crazy weird stuff — that didn’t sell. And as I evolved and getting into the iron scene, it was kind of a natural step away from building performative sculptures. Iron work is kind of a dance. You work with a lot of people. It’s a spectacle. Building your own crew and your own furnaces is very close to what I was already doing before. And when I went into foundry work and developed this product line out of it, it just sort of took its own spin. I was open to different opportunities. I didn’t have any plans. I didn’t have a straightforward, conventional entrance into the business world. So I moved forward using my guts and intuition as a guide. There’s a negative connotation into not having a business plan.  Some people see that kind of flakey or very lucky. And there is a lot of luck involved, but I think it has to do with being very honest and open and aware of opportunities when they come and being ready to pounce on them.

What have you observed about the Madison art scene or other Madison artists you have met?
I’ve been here for 3 years. Moving to Madison was really foreign to me. I’ve traveled a lot, but Madison was so radically different than Milwaukee. It was really hard to swallow it right away. My impression wasn’t very fair.

I think Madison really needs someone to initiate conversation about art. Somebody to hold the public’s hand and show them this is who is here doing stuff. Because my first impression of Madison was that there is no buzz, like where is the scene? It’s been 3 years, and I’m just now starting to meet people. I’m realizing that there are artists, there are amazing people, they’re just buried. They’re in their own studio or their basements. It just doesn’t have the same accessibility as Milwaukee did.

I think it comes down to Madison’s real estate for holding studio spaces that are affordable and conducive to art just isn’t happening right now. I think there are a lot of squatters who have money in the buildings that are really awesome for that but they’re just waiting for them to flip on the market or something. Madison doesn’t have the industrial spaces to host really open spaces and cultivate that community. There aren’t even really a lot of galleries here. There’s no place for artists to convene. There’s no conversation happening because there’s no space for that to happen.

I really revered in Milwaukee because there was a lot of cross pollination from the dance world, performance, film, music, art. It would create these visible hot spots. There was a lot of public access to it. I don’t know what the solution would be for Madison.

What are your views on Sector 67 and your experience with the DIY scene here?
Sector 67: They are my heroes. They are the best thing to happen to me in the Madison scene. That community is extremely unique and prolific. It hosts technicians, engineers, artists, programmers, software people. All of that comes together there because they have that community space. There’s sort of this energy there like you have an idea, you do it, and you move it off the table for the next person to come along. You’re almost pushed by the momentum of that space to finish stuff. It’s such a good thing. There’s so much camaraderie and so many varieties of intellect there. Everyone has the interest to share their experience with you. When I built the map, I used their facility to build that last 28 states. They master new things really quickly. They’re hackers and makers. They’re big movers and shakers in town.

How did you get to be on the Martha Stewart show and what was it like?
I had an Etsy site a long time ago. And they found me through Etsy. They wanted to do a cast iron show and they had emailed me and wanted me to ship the piece out like 7 days later. I was like, uh, “Maybe a picture?” Do you realize it’s 600 pounds and it’s 10 feet by 7 feet and breaks down to into like a trillion pieces? And they were like, “Yeah, so?” At first I told them I couldn’t make that 6-day turnaround. It was all on us to get it out there. They were not able to foot the bill for guests on the show.

But it was an opportunity and I said “We have to make this happen.” It costs you money to say no. We’re going, we’re figuring it out.

It was so off the hook. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Then when we went back the second time, in Fall as an American Made honoree, that they covered EVERY expense. It was quite amazing !

Click here to listen to Alisa talk about the Martha Stewart Show

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