STRANGERCROMBIE 2006 PURCHASE

Donna McCord is in a funny position. She is caught between her messier instincts and the perfectionism of high-end art glass. She is entrenched in the world of studio glass art, and yet, she says, "Sometimes I feel like I make work that glass artists don't like."

The truth is, if she can commit to developing both sides equally, the pull between them may turn out to be her strength and her calling card.

McCord—who purchased this review in the Strangercrombie charity auction—knows how to pay dues. For four years she has worked her way quietly through almost every department at the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood. She has been in maintenance, in the kitchen, and in the cold shop. She has been a driver. Now she handles art for the annual auction, a job she supplements by helping to teach introductory glassblowing at Pratt.

Since 1999, she has been blowing glass, and she is drawn both to the medium's humble, utilitarian potential—"the first time I made a glass I could drink water out of and I drank water out of it, I was sold"—and its transparency. Not because transparent glass is pretty, but because it contains light, lending itself as "a metaphor for the attempt to understand things."

Since she began in art, McCord has been as much a thinker as a maker. She studied English and sociology at Smith College, but found herself obsessively drawing during class, so she switched to art school at the California College of Arts and Crafts. In 2001, she got her BFA in glass and photography—an unusual combination. She specialized in installation, turning whole rooms into sparkling, shadowy variations on Plato's cave, where it was impossible to tell what was real and what was reflected.

To create the installations, she'd blow a piece of glass, set it on color-photo paper, and expose the negative image. Then she'd project part of that image onto glass formations in a gallery, casting complex webs of shadows around the room. In one case, she used a layered scrim as a further filter, and the room seemed to waver, as though it were underwater.

But that's not the sort of thing that sells. Like many artists looking for real-world careers, McCord is trying to find both her voice and some collectors. She has begun tightening up her designs. I hope they don't become too tight. For instance, a series of vessels evocative of landscapes and bodily contours are lumpy, but the lumpiness is interesting, even if the series still looks experimental.

McCord's latest and most important series is vessels of various shapes—egg, bowl, vase—that bear, beneath their surfaces, a line taken for a spiral walk, to paraphrase Paul Klee, whom McCord cites as an influence, along with Kandinsky and Kandinsky's 1910 book Concerning the Spiritual in Art.

McCord uses a Swedish technique called graal. She blows a core bubble of two colors, usually one transparent and one opaque white. She lets it cool, then hand-engraves the spiral (or multiple spirals) using a Dremel, which brings out the underlying color—similar to the way a cameo is made. She reheats the bubble and brings it together with hot glass of another color, which fuses the engraving into the surface and creates three layers of color with the white in the middle to express the depth of the engraving. As she blows out the final bubble, the engraving is distorted.

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The spiral on a brown, yellow, and white egg has rough white edges, like the salt streaks on Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson's monumental 1970 earthwork on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. A brown bowl has a field of orange stars taken from traditional Czech designs. The stars are blurry and distantly majestic, not decorative or cute, as a result of the improvisational quality of the final, distorting blow of the glass. Glass can freeze perfection, but it can also express transience. McCord, admirably, is looking for something in between.

jgraves@thestranger.com