Category Archives: Sacred Sites

Here There Be Dragons: Utilizing Pareidolia in My Art Process

Pareidolia Clouds at Sunset
August 21, 2017; digital photograph
Rabun Gap, GA
© Amy Funderburk 2017 
All Rights Reserved

What do you see in the clouds above?

I see a giant moose. Or someone with a tiny head, sitting back on his heels while flexing his muscles. And a pyramid in the distance.

The Druids practiced such cloud watching as a form of divination called Neladoracht, so for a recent #FolkloreThursday, I tweeted my question with this photograph. Answers ranged from a horse rearing backwards, to a dog with something on its nose or fetching, to a kneeling, bearded old man in various guises. A couple of folks even saw a Xenomorph – the chillingly aggressive adversary from the Alien movie franchise.

For those responders, I could only predict one of two outcomes: a bucket of popcorn with a movie marathon, or a very bad day.

Pareidolia is the impressive sounding word for something I have done all of my life, always recognizing familiar shapes in the natural chaos of the commonplace. Faces, features, and animals emerge out of wood grain, lichen, stone, and smoke, or dance in the sky as clouds. On a metal dresser at my grandmother’s house, finished to make it look like wood, the twisting would-be wood-grain shapes conjured up all manner of faces and forms to my eye. At my childhood home, the bathroom walls were covered in some truly ugly pink marlite, patterned with a thin, undulating, gold line in a feeble attempt to masquerade as marble. Evoking my visual adventures was this interior design nightmare’s only saving grace. defines pareidolia as “the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.”1 The ink blot tests of Swiss psychoanalyst and psychologist Hermann Rorschach are another example of this phenomenon.

Along with the primal color red and the written word, the human face gets what I call “automatic emphasis” in an artist’s composition. If you don’t want the viewer’s eye to go right to the figure, you will need to do your best to somehow downplay it, because our eye has the tendency to home in on the human face. I have always wondered if this is because we look at our own reflection, then seek out the familiar, or because we are taught to make eye contact when we communicate, but, as cited on, “The human brain is optimized to recognize faces, which could also explain why we are so good at picking out meaningful shapes in random patterns.”2

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

~ Edgar Degas

In his November 2015 workshop, Water: Reflections and Translucence, artist David Dunlop recommended that artists utilize a “process of reduction and simplification” so as to exploit the brain’s physiological tendency to make sense out of what he called the “tableaux of confusion”. In other words, just as my brain easily sees animals in the weathered texture of my beloved standing stones or cloud formations, the brain has a tendency to make sense out of textured chaos. Such visual cacophony as you would also find in grass or weathered texture, your mind wants to make sense from that visual information. In this way, the viewer’s brain does part of my job for me.3

This is pareidolia.

I bet most of you have also experienced pareidolia, but you might not know that in his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci recommended this as an observation and creativity technique to up-and-coming artists. As an artist, inventor, and scientist, da Vinci was a tireless observer of natural forms and forces. In one of his notebooks, he wrote:

“I will not refrain from setting among these precepts a new device for consideration which, although it may appear trivial and almost ludicrous, is nevertheless of great utility in arousing the mind to various inventions. And this is, that if you look at any walls spotted with various stains, or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see divers combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expression of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well-conceived forms. With such walls and blends of different stones it comes about as it does with the sound of bells, in whose clanging you may discover every name and word you can imagine.”

Little did I know that I have been following da Vinci’s advice all along, though usually in a different way. As an artist, it was only natural to take the brain’s inclination a step further. As I work on a drawing or painting, I automatically make correlations between the random shapes that I am depicting and the forms that I see in them when determining how the shapes interlock to create the whole. This is one of the ways I can best conclude how each area relates to the other and if I am successfully transposing what I see to paper, panel, or canvas.

Fictitious Pictish Standing Stone - in progressFictitious Pictish Standing Stone - in progess detailFictitious Pictish Standing Stone - in progress, detail showing pareidolia

What do you see in the detail shots above of my charcoal rubbing drawing, Fictitious Pictish Standing Stone? I photographed the smallest detail (third image) while looking at the drawing upside down, so you would not otherwise have seen the face that I saw as I inverted my reference photograph while working. In other areas not necessary to describing the features specific to this stone, I have had the opportunity to stay much more general, utilizing Dunlop’s “tableaux of confusion”.

Second Sight/2nd Site
diptych, 12″ x 30″
oil on oil primed linen
©2012 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
The Rollright Stones, King’s Men Stone Circle
Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border, England

I definitely experienced pareidolia when painting Second Sight/2nd Site. When I photographed the stone, I focused first on the subject and then on the background, exploiting limited depth of field with my camera. After printing a reference photograph of the stone the way it actually appears (as seen on the viewer’s left of the diptych), I flipped the other version with the landscape in focus using photo editing software before printing. Once I had both reference photographs in hand, I played with cropping the proportions and the location of the intersection between them until I arrived at a pleasing orientation. To echo the concept of sight, I wanted an arrangement reminiscent of eyes or a mask.

I folded the two reference photos along the guidelines I had drawn, but when I placed the two sides together, I discovered something quite amazing – at the intersection between the two photographs, a perfectly formed swallowtail butterfly appeared at the very top edge of the stone! When painting this, I only had to clarify the bottom forked edge of the hind wing; the butterfly shape was clearly there. Had I cropped and joined the photos in any other way, it would have gone undiscovered.4

I purposefully arranged the diptych to look like a mask or eyes, but otherwise, the butterfly is the only shape within the stone that I intended for viewers to definitely identify. When painting, however, I saw several other forms in the stone that I used for my own purposes of correct pattern placement.

Perhaps you have only looked through the holes or at the butterfly, so take a moment now to look at the stone texture. What can you find? As I painted, I tried to put such things in the left canvas as a fat rabbit with its ears pinned back, an askew skull, and a paw print; and in the right canvas, and a yellow bird, monkey, guinea pig, and a little white ghost, all in their proper places.

Sometimes I intend hidden things to be a visual reward to attentive viewers, but I am delighted when they often find things I didn’t necessarily include. As I look at Second Sight/2nd Site with fresh eyes, I now also see part of a peering kitten and quite a proper dragon on the left. One of my friends sees dragons in just about everything I paint, and now you know how and why. Let me know what you find!

All the best, and Namaste,


1 “Pareidolia,” (accessed December 12, 2017)

2 Ibid., citing New Scientist, December 24, 2011, (accessed December 12, 2017)

3 To read more about my workshop with David Dunlop, please read Say, One Out of Two Ain’t Bad! Tales from my recent art workshops…

4 To read more about the story behind Second Sight/2nd Site, please read Origins of a Painting: Second Sight/2nd Site

Also posted in Art Travels, Creativity, Drawing and drawing techniques, General art discussion and philosophy, Inspirational Quotes, Other artists, Painting and painting techniques, Travel, Works in progress Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Inspiration in Paradise: A Love Letter to Puerto Rico

Tropical Flower on Wet Asphalt
digital photograph
© Amy Funderburk 2016, All Rights Reserved
At the parking area near La Coca Falls, El Yunke Rainforest, Puerto Rico

In December, Jimmy and I took a much-needed vacation to a place where we can just relax and recharge our batteries – Puerto Rico. This was our third trip to the island, so it may surprise you that this destination now ties with both Ireland and England for the number of visits we have made.

We seem to have a thing for islands.

Even though this wasn’t a working art trip, you can’t turn off being an artist – it is in your soul, and always takes hold when you see inspiration. The muse of Puerto Rico never disappoints.

The narrow, cat-filled, cobblestone streets of Historic Old San Juan are lined with textured color: the crumbling decay of buildings perhaps kissed by one too many hurricanes stand side-by-side with restored, repainted beauties, all from a by-gone Spanish colonial era. Without staying here any longer than they seem to, I don’t know how the day-tripper cruise ship tourists can get a true feel for this vibrant city.

This time, we took in Castillo San Cristóbal, conveniently located just a couple of blocks from our bed and breakfast. There was a small arts and crafts fair happening there during our stay, and two of the fort’s stately iguana invaders made for fascinating models. One of these scaly friends may aspire to be the basis for a dragon one day!

One night after dinner, we took a stroll down to the side of the fort, lit only by the cool, almost-full moon on the ocean side, and just a bit of golden street light spilling over on the right. Inspired by the limited range of low key values I could discern, I decided to invoke the Victorian expat artist Whistler and think “Nocturne!” as I quickly drew the 15 minute sketch shown below.

Considering just the touch of light I had to work by, I didn’t really know exactly what I had until I returned to our room! When I saw the drawing, I felt I had responded to the values and shapes in a rather energetic way. As I worked, I couldn’t help but think of the Old Masters creating by candlelight. However, I’m in no danger of reenacting the legend of van Gogh wearing a halo of candles around his straw hat.

Calle Sol, Old San Juan
digital photograph
© Amy Funderburk 2016, All Rights Reserved
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

The Mourner, reference photograph
digital photograph
© Amy Funderburk 2016, All Rights Reserved
Statue, Cementerio de Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

As our top pick for artistic inspiration in Old San Juan, the sheer magnitude of the Cementerio de Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis makes it a don’t miss – this was our second visit.

Dramatically situated above the ocean, these large grounds are awash with statues of angels and stone mourners. I have yet to visit the renowned cemeteries of Paris, but this Cementerio has set that particular bar quite high.

The oldest section of the cemetery dates from 1863. After photographing just a few potential candidates from among the many beauties there, I spent the afternoon under a hot sun with the figure shown above, first executing a pencil drawing to warm up, then honing my watercolor skills with some painting studies.

It was here under the bright blue Puerto Rican sky that a preference for my beloved panel surfaces by Ampersand swelled to the devoted level of a firm and lasting commitment. As I worked, I completely gave up on the watercolor block produced by a leading manufacturer after it refused to perform remotely how I expected. It simply would not tolerate my predilection for scrubbing and lifting (isn’t that just like an oil painter?), unlike the tolerant Aquabord and Encausticbord Ampersand panels. Indeed, these panels seem to revel in my oil painter-like behaviors.

The Formation of Clouds, reference photograph
digital photograph
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
Pico del Oeste (West Peak) from the Yokahu Tower, El Yunke Rainforest, Puerto Rico

In the El Yunque Rainforest, even if you aren’t up for a hike, you can enjoy lush natural beauty from your car as you drive down the PR 191. Several waterfalls, most notably the impressive La Coca Falls pictured below, are right by the road.

As home of Yuquiyú, the indigenous Taíno tribe’s “Good God,” El Yunque is sacred ground. To protect his people from destruction, Yuquiyú was said to do battle with Guabancex, the fierce Goddess of storms and chaos; her storms were the Juracán. Indeed, the mountains of the El Yunque rainforest do just that, acting as a hurricane barrier to the land beyond.

The Yokahu tower stands guard beside an impressive overlook with a view all the way to the coast. From the top of the 69 foot tall tower, we could see the Los Picachos and El Yunque peaks in one direction, but the real show was happening around the Pico del Oeste, the West Peak (above).

Jimmy realized what we were witnessing – the actual formation of clouds as the sun dramatically sucked up moisture vapor in slow, snaking tendrils. When the light would occasionally break through the sun’s fast-moving, thick cloud collection, it was pure magic. My very quick watercolor pencil sketch felt like a meager attempt to capture just the essence of this ever-changing weather drama in action.

This cloud nursery is the very reason they don’t call it a sunforest, however. As soon as we began our hike down the Big Tree Trail, the rainforest began to live up to its name.

After remembering the old travel adage that it’s about the journey rather than the destination, my perception changed to one of appreciation. I immediately began to notice how eerily limited the depth of visibility was within the canopy of surrounding lush vegetation. We were inside the moisture-laded clouds. You can see what I mean in the photograph below. Art supplies stuffed into my backpack remained unused – nothing like soft rain to impede the creation of a watercolor.

La Coca Falls, El Yunke Rainforest
digital photograph
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
El Yunke Rainforest, Puerto Rico

Value Changes, El Yunke Rainforest
digital photograph
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
El Yunke Rainforest, Puerto Rico

My View of Paradise with Sailboat
digital photograph
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
Our spectacular island backyard, Puerto Rico

School of Blue Tang with Friends
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
Snorkeling in our backyard, Puerto Rico

After leaving Old San Juan, our next stop was one of the smaller remote islands off the coast of Puerto Rico. It takes a bit of extra effort to get there, which is part of what keeps these islands from getting too commercialized. Staying in such an off-the-beaten-path location can give you a different perspective on the elements, even if you are someone who tries to stay in connection with nature as much as possible in a modern world.

Before we left, I was sure to purchase a wide range of watercolor pencils in those saturated blues and greens that unmistakably say “Caribbean.” Of course, snorkeling gives you a window into a remarkable world fit for sprites and mermaids that you can never imagine if you only look at the surface of things. Not to mention, a chance to swim with the unassuming underwater rock stars – the sea turtles!

Since our rental house used a cistern for its water supply, we were careful not to leave water running unnecessarily, and had to use bottled water for cooking and toothbrushing. Nothing makes you even more conscientious about your water use than repeatedly returning to the supermercado for mas agua.1

While you might not normally want any rain during a vacation, after a few days without it, I began to wonder about the water level in our cistern. We welcomed the pattern of quick-moving, brief afternoon showers that started midway through our stay, knowing that they replenished our supply.

This shift in perception to an island mindset about rain was best illustrated during a fantastic local drumming performance. The bayside restaurant that hosted the event had been built with one side open to allow little boats to dock. When a brief shower suddenly blew in, instead of voicing any irritation over getting wet, the drummers simply moved their drums three feet forward, and everyone cried joyously, “Mas agua!”

Underwater Rock Star: Green Sea Turtle
digital photograph
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
Snorkeling in our own backyard, Puerto Rico

Orion and Friends
digital photograph
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
Winter Solstice, Puerto Rico

Of course, these rains are carried on wings of air.

While the trade winds alleviate the need for air conditioning or a clothes drier, when it is strong, the wind is a magpie that likes to steal things. It pulls clothes off the line, hides papers in corners, and folds yoga mats into origami.

It also stole a bit of my sleep. A couple of days into our stay there, the wind got so loud at night that I repeatedly woke up. A pair of earplugs later and this was sorted, but it certainly gave me respect for what it must be like to wait out a hurricane – an infinitely larger proposition than just the harmless rush of a noisy, thieving gale.

At night, we could see the Milky Way, and more stars than you could ever count. My old friend Orion was easily recognizable in the Winter Solstice sky, and perhaps brighter than I’d ever seen him. I could even discern the Orion Nebula without a telescope as the fuzzy middle “star” in his sword. The only light pollution was the warm glow of St. Thomas, one of the US Virgin Islands, at the horizon.

We had the seasonal visual cues of charming holiday decorations, some a bit weather beaten and sun faded. But who knew winter could look like this? Suffice it to say that we didn’t miss the bitter cold snap that hit home while we were in this tropical paradise. But even though the first day of winter here was quite warmer than what I am accustomed to, the days felt noticeably shorter in this place where we wanted to spend all of our time outside.

This is how we were able to mark the season.

Somehow, my conceptual experience of the elements on this trip is going to make its way into the broader scope of my work. Going beyond your daily routine to color outside the lines of life can lead to wondrous experiences that are rich creative fodder.

All the best, and Namaste,


Sunset Behind Cayo Luis Peña from Playa Tamarindo
watercolor study on Encausticbord, 5″ x 7″
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
Culebra, Puerto Rico

Castillo San Cristóbal at Night
December 12, 2016
5 1/2″ x 8″
sketchbook drawing, pencil on paper
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

1 Mas agua – Spanish for “more water”; supermercado is a supermarket.


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Amy and Jimmy’s Top Ten List of Haunted Places

The first edition of this post first appeared as two feature articles in the October 2015 issue of my newsletter, Off the Easel.

Haunted Wistman's Wood 1 digital photograph © Amy Funderburk 2010 All Rights Reserved Two Bridges, Dartmoor, Devon, England

Haunted Wistman’s Wood 1
digital photograph
© Amy Funderburk 2010
All Rights Reserved
Two Bridges, Dartmoor, Devon, England

Decisions, decisions!

Narrowing down our list of favorite haunted locations turned out to be quite difficult. Even though you may frequently find them on such lists, some of the most meaningful places to me I would not call simply inhabited by ghosts, but rather, are sites woven into the rich tapestry where mythology, folklore, and history become one. “Haunted” seems too limited a word for these complex places. Lough Gur and its surrounding sacred landscape in Co Limerick, the Republic of Ireland, is one such place. 

Certain locations also have a rich history of association with the origins of this holiday long before it was known as the Halloween we know today. Two of my other favorite sites in the Republic of Ireland — the otherworldly Oweynagat Cave in Co Roscommon and the Hill of Tara in Co Meath — both have powerful historic and legendary associations with this time of year.

Wild expanses that I love dearly such as Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, England almost seem too broadly spectred to narrow down to just one listing. A wide variety of manifestations call Bodmin Moor home — from the well-documented Beast of Bodmin, the Arthurian Lady of the Lake and the ghost Jan Tregeagle at Dozmary Pool, to  a variety of spooky denizens at the reputedly well-haunted Jamaica Inn, immortalized by author Daphne du Maurier. Like Dartmoor in Devon, England, Bodmin Moor is much greater than the sum of its parts.

By this definition, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA should be here rather than kicking off our Top Ten. You might say our ghostly travel adventures began in this city that certainly deserves an honorable mention on our list. October marks our honeymoon in this, the birthplace of Anne Rice’s vampires. Be sure to take a walking haunted tour as well as a cemetery tour here. You’ll see the famous tomb of voodoo queen Marie Laveau, as well as the House of the Rising Sun, an 1800’s brothel haunted by its madame that was the inspiration for the 1960’s song. We also drove out to Oak Alley Plantation, the focus of numerous professional ghost hunts.

These favorite places have inspired my art as well as my heart, and have only served to further feed my wanderlust. 

Amy and Jimmy’s Top Ten List of Haunted Places

It’s no secret that my husband James C. Williams and I gravitate to liminal sites — if it’s ancient, mythical, folkloric, or haunted, whenever possible, it goes on our itinerary! For October, I thought it would be fun to list our Top Ten Haunted Places we’ve visited.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list by any means, for I’ve come to realize that I could list almost every location we’ve ever been. Our home state also has its fair share of ghosts. Deciding which site should rank higher than any other also felt like splitting hairs — a visit to any on this list should prove rewarding.

Famous haunts like the Tower of London and Edinburgh Castle are definitely well worth a visit, but for the most part, we’ve tried to create a list of sites slightly more off the beaten path. I highly encourage interested readers to learn more about the fascinating history behind these sites — and their preternatural inhabitants! 

Not a believer? No problem. Each of these sites are well worth a visit solely on the merits of either history or dramatic location, factors we also took into account when making our selections.

Dunnottar Ghost archival pigment print 12” x 18”, framed to 27” x 20” © Amy Funderburk 2013 Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven, Scotland

Dunnottar Ghost
archival pigment print
12” x 18”, framed to 27” x 20”
© Amy Funderburk 2013
Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven, Scotland

10. Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. It’s no wonder Dunnottar is considered one of Scotland’s most haunted castles, considering these stones have witnessed such events as William Wallace’s army burning down the chapel containing a garrison of English troops in 1297, and the cruel mistreatment of a group of Covenanters seeking religious freedom, who were imprisoned there in 1685.

You will enjoy this spectacular cliff-top location whether the ghosts decide to show themselves or not. While neither of us had any such encounters there, the rich tales of Dunnottar’s plentiful otherworldly occupants inspired me to create the photograph above. Email me to learn the full story behind this piece! 

After a lovely day at the castle, for a truly hair-raising experience, head to the nearby Dunnottar Woods and take a walk to the Neolithic cairn known as Gallows Hill. 

Dunluce Castle - Ruin View silver gelatin print 5" x 7", 2001 North Antrim Coast, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland © Amy Funderburk 2001

Dunluce Castle – Ruin View
silver gelatin print 5″ x 7″, 2001
North Antrim Coast, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland
© Amy Funderburk 2001

9. Dunluce Castle, near Bushmills, Co Antrim, Northern Ireland. You might recognize Dunluce as the castle inside the Led Zeppelin album cover for Houses of the Holy, or more recently, as a shooting location for the popular HBO program, Game of Thrones. Like Dunnottar, Dunluce is strategically built on a dramatic promontory. Here you may experience tell-tale cold spots, poltergeist activity, and will hear tales of a white-clad Bean Sidhe (Banshee).

My favorite story of Dunluce is the contested local legend that during a fierce storm in the 1600’s, part of the kitchen fell into the sea, along with the pots, pans, and servants! During storms, it is said that you can sometimes still hear their cries.

I did not have any personal experiences here, but I was artistically inspired by the atmospheric location and evocative ruins. 

Be sure to also take in the nearby Giant’s Causeway. Legend says it was built by the Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhaill.

8. Wistman’s Wood, Two Bridges, Dartmoor, Devon, England. This eerie and moody grove of ancient, stunted oaks could very well be the most haunted place on Dartmoor. 

Stories of a ghostly procession, spirits, and black hell hounds leading the otherworldly Wild Hunt all abound. Boulders are thickly covered with lichens and mosses underneath the twisted dwarf trees. Their undulating branches evoke the adders associated with this Wood, and you can easily imagine the ancient Druids worshiping underneath them.

The whole of Dartmoor is well worth a visit, as it is littered with prehistoric remains as well as more haunting locales. Should you find yourself “Pixie-led” across its bleak beauty, beware the Hairy Hands on the B3212 road between Two Bridges and Postbridge! 

Second Sight/2nd Site diptych, 12" x 30" oil on oil primed linen, © 2012 The Rollright Stones, King's Men Stone Circle Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border, England

Second Sight/2nd Site
diptych, 12″ x 30″
oil on oil primed linen, ©  Amy Funderburk 2012
The Rollright Stones, King’s Men Stone Circle
Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border, England

7. The Rollrights, King’s Men Stone Circle, the Oxfordshire and Warwickshire border, England. These weathered stones had an undeniably supernatural air, and Jimmy’s friend was previously knocked down here by an unseen force. This is a place chock full of myth and legend, and while it may not fit our personal definition of haunted, because of what happened to our friend, we have ranked it fairly high on our list. 

To read my full account of our visit to the Rollrights and how this stone circle inspired me to paint the diptych pictured above, please see the article, Origins of a Painting, in the April 2015 issue of my newsletter. 

6. Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Chapel at El Morro is definitely one of those places where you feel like you are being watched, even though you are alone. Despite your proximity to the busy visitor’s entrance of this popular tourist destination in the light of day, the hairs are firmly raised on the back of your neck.

Based on the strong sensations I felt in this chapel, I wasn’t at all surprised to see El Morro appear on a popular US ghost investigation program. The lighthouse is also said to be haunted.

While you are in Old San Juan, be sure to stay at Hotel el Convento, a former convent converted into our favorite hotel. After she became a widow, a Spanish noblewoman transformed her home into a Carmelite Convent, and she still haunts the hotel. If you oversleep, you might be awakened by a ghostly nun, and bats visit the 300 year old Nispero fruit tree in the open air courtyard!

5. West Kennet Long Barrow, just over a mile from Avebury, Marlborough, Wiltshire, England. Though you may read stories of a man and his dog appearing at Midsummer on top of this Neolithic burial mound, I tend to classify this powerful site as more ancient and primal that simply “haunted”, though haunted it may be. Around 50 prehistoric ancestors were buried within, after all. One definitely does not feel alone here, and for me, the presence was tangible as I approached the entrance. 

While in nearby Avebury, one of my favorite sites in England, you might as well pop into The Red Lion, said to be quite haunted. Considering the village is in the middle of such a large, impressive stone circle, why not?
4. Quin Abbey, near Ennis, Co Clare, Republic of Ireland. Jimmy relates his experience at this 15th century Abbey during our trip there in 2003:

“When we approached the abbey, Amy went one way around it and I went the other. As we met on the opposite side, she told me to investigate the inside of an arch which seemed creepy. 

“After I got to that location, I pointed my camcorder upward into the arch, and then down. As I turned the camcorder downward, I thought I saw a face in the monitor, and yes, Amy was right — that spot made me physically shudder! I later told Amy about my experience, and we reviewed the tape. It only showed stone and shadows — no ghostly face.

“Several days later, before returning home, I bought a book of tales from that region by storyteller Eddie Lenihan.1 As we were flying home, I read a ghost story from Quin Abbey. In the tale, while some boys were seeking treasure, they encountered the ghost of a monk in the bottom of that very same arch where I had seen the face!”

3. Alsia Well, St Buryan, Cornwall, England. Alsia is one of those Cornish wells where if you don’t already believe in Piskies,2 you will be charmed into it on your first visit, for this is one of the most magical places in Cornwall. 

Once we found the right house, the delightful landowner gave us a warm welcome, entertained us with enchanting stories, and led us on a personal tour of the grounds. On the way to the well, he pointed out the remains of an ancient wall, which may suggest that the Alsia well was indeed venerated long ago. 

A swath of frothy blackthorn — a tree symbolizing death and rebirth — made a natural archway over the simple entrance gate. The low well, surrounded by lush, delicate vegetation, sent its gentle trickle of water out onto the ground. A green-clad earthen embankment rose behind the well.   

Prior to approaching the well, I opened my backpack to get a bottle for gathering water. I had just placed it in my pack in the car, but now, it was not there. As I turned to go back to the car for another, there was my empty bottle, right by the gate! It was resting several feet away, at an angle where it could not have rolled — not to mention, I believe I would have noticed such a large item falling out of my bag!

Later, while seated in front of the well, I saw the reflection of a woman in white, as if she were standing on the embankment above the well in front of me. Her face was in sharp perspective, making it impossible to see facial features. After daring to glance up, I saw no one, and then the reflection was gone. 

Excited by what we had experienced, we returned the next day to tell the landowner about our encounter. He then told us a story that offered an explanation, and we were treated to his own tales of such phenomena. 

There had recently been a healer in the village named Jean. When she passed on, it had been her wish to have her ashes buried at the gate to the Alsia Well. Had Jean taken my water bottle to get our attention?  

2. Penrhiwgwair Cottage, South Wales. Please note this is a private residence, in use as a bed and breakfast at the time of our 2008 stay. When we made our reservations, we did not know of its haunted status.  

Some guests have experienced animal phenomena during their stay. This 16th to 17th century Welsh longhouse may date from as early as 1542. On the ground floor, cows were originally kept in what became the breakfast room so as to keep them warm and to protect them from thieves. 

A bedroom above used to be the hayloft. One guest thought the hosts had a cat, since she felt the weight of a feline presence curl up on her bed one night – only to discover the next morning that no physical cat lived there! 
But it is the other resident of the house who we encountered.
Our first evening there, I got up in the night, and when I went into the hallway, I felt an extraordinarily strong presence standing there. It seemed very accusatory and territorial. I could not move fast enough to rush back to my room and get under the protective covers!
The next morning over breakfast, as casually as I could muster, I asked our hosts, “Uh, so, by chance is the cottage…haunted?” It was then we learned of the woman who had lived in the cottage and died within recent memory, the grandmother of a local man. As a result, Jimmy and I refer to her as Granny. 

A friend of the homeowners had a more tangible experience with her. As he climbed the stairs, he spoke to a lady on the landing. “She asked what he was doing, and when he said he was visiting friends, she said, ‘Well, that’s very nice for YOU,’ in a slightly huffy way,” the homeowner recalled.
I felt Granny in the hallway every night, until our host’s young daughter came to visit during the weekend. At that point, I felt Granny retreat into the daughter’s bedroom, as if to protectively keep watch over her. When asked about his memories of this apparition, Jimmy said, “Granny gave me the shivers!”
The region around the cottage is also rich with folklore. A pwca 3 lives just up the road, and a ghostly woman searches the moor looking for her lost buckle.
My friend just told me of another house legend at the cottage. If you hear the horses and hounds of the ghostly Wild Hunt outside, death is imminent. When a guest who did not know this story came down for breakfast, he told his hosts that he’d had a vivid dream about a hunt gathering outside the window. “We did check him out online for quite some time,” shared my friend, “but all seemed fine!” 

And for Number One, we had a tie: 

Bluidy George Mackenzie's Tomb infrared photograph © 2012 James C. Williams, All Rights Reserved Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

Bluidy George Mackenzie’s Tomb
infrared photograph
© 2012 James C. Williams, All Rights Reserved
Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

1. Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland. This is Jimmy’s Number One on our list, because it is the only location where he has ever captured a full body apparition with his infrared film. Based on the grisly history of this cemetery, Jimmy exclaimed, “It’s no wonder the place is so haunted. I’m surprised I only caught one apparition!”

Founded in 1561, Greyfriar’s saw a particularly tragic event in 1679. Some 1200 Covenanters were imprisoned and mistreated in an area of the churchyard that featured vaulted tombs; the area became known as the “Covenanters’ Prison.”

Reported poltergeist activity experienced by visitors in the so-called Black Mausoleum includes bruises, scratches, burns, being knocked unconscious, and broken bones. Thankfully, no one in our tour group had any such unwelcome advances. 

This poltergeist activity is attributed to Bloody or Bluidy George Mackenzie, whose tomb is depicted in Jimmy’s photograph. In life, the Lord Advocate Sir George Mackenzie persecuted the Covenanters, but since his death in 1691, he haunts Greyfriars — or at least since a homeless man disturbed his tomb in 1998. 

What do you see in Jimmy’s photograph above? The ephemeral figure does NOT appear in the frame just before this shot, so you decide — ghost, or a trick of the light? 

Harry Potter fans will want to ramble around the tombstones of Greyfriars in the daylight to find the names that inspired J.K. Rowling as she was writing her first novel about the young wizard hero.

Be sure to take a walking tour of haunted Edinburgh that also takes in the Edinburgh Vaults. After the vaults were opened in 1985, numerous accounts of paranormal activities have been reported. There was one particular vault that I felt was quite haunted. It is perhaps not for the faint of heart, however, for the presence did not feel at all friendly.

1. Pengersick Castle, near Praa Sands, Cornwall, England. Said to house an excess of 20 ghosts, some call Pengersick the most haunted castle in all of Europe. The tower bedroom is at the very least considered Cornwall’s, if not Britain’s, most haunted, and based on my own experiences there, I concur! This earns Pengersick my vote for the top of our list.

We had the pleasure of attending a haunted investigation at the castle. Every one of our numerous personal experiences and vivid impressions were substantiated afterwards by reading the books of evidence, history, and other visitor accounts that were placed in each room, as well as in conversation with our guide following the investigation. I appreciated that our excellent guide, a published author, recommended that visitors consult these books only after having sufficient time within each room so as to draw our own conclusions.

I will refrain from elaborating on the specifics of our experiences further so as to give you the same opportunity to confirm your own encounters there, but if you’d like more information, feel free to contact me!

OK, you caught us — this ended up being a Top Eleven List, but where’s the alliteration in that?

I hope you’ve enjoyed our haunting itinerary! Just think, we haven’t been to places like Ireland’s infamous Leap Castle, the Paris catacombs, or The Stanley Hotel in Colorado yet — what stories will we come home with next to fuel our art?

Where should we go next? Do you have a location you would recommend to readers seeking a haunted itinerary? Please leave a comment and let us know your suggestions!

1. Eddie Lenihan, Long Ago by Shannonside (Mercier Press, 2002), 55-57.

2. Cornish pixies

3. Pwca: Welsh; in Irish it is the púca. Also pooka, a shape-changing creature who can be benevolent or mischievous.


If you have any questions about his photograph, please contact Jimmy.  Many thanks for his assistance in preparing this Top Ten List!

Many thanks to our friend in Wales for the information she provided for the entry on Penrhiwgwair Cottage!

Also posted in Art Travels, Celtic history and mythology, Halloween, Travel Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

No Fooling

This post first appeared as a feature article in the April 2016 issue of my newsletter, Off the Easel.

O. THE LEAP OF FAITH oil on oil primed linen, 36" x 48" ©Amy Funderburk 1999, All Rights Reserved My interpretation of The Fool tarot card in the series Wisdom of the Ancient Lore.

oil on oil primed linen, 36″ x 48″
©Amy Funderburk 1999, All Rights Reserved

In my painting from 1999, 0. THE LEAP OF FAITH, I depict a rich and misunderstood archetype — the Fool. What better work to feature here for April Fool’s Day?

The only Major Arcana tarot card to survive the transition into the modern playing card deck is the Fool, known today as the Joker. Often it is considered the card of the querent. The Fool denotes the beginning of a new journey as well as the end of the previous cycle.
A playful character as well as a bit of the trickster, the Fool’s complex wisdom lies beneath the veneer of seemingly foolish behavior. What may be judged as foolish by others may be just what is needed to dislodge old energetic patterns. Who else but the jester was able to satirize the king in front of the court and get away with it? In fact, an important function of the court jester was to act as the king’s spy, since he could move within any group.1
Such ambiguities abound with the Fool, from the motley garment to androgyny. Even the designation of zero helps to explain the Fool’s great dichotomy, for zero is both nothing and everything. What happens to a number when followed by a zero?2

Within the Fool is the potential for every possibility; like the concepts of yin and yang, within all these apparent opposites is wholeness.3
The Fool is often depicted with a few bundled belongings tied to a staff, but in this painting she carries only a hazelnut. In Celtic lore this is the symbol of wisdom, for all three realms of the Celtic universe are said to be contained within a hazelnut poised on the edge of the Well of Segais.4

Nine hazel trees grow over this Well. The Salmon of Knowledge lives within, attaining his wisdom by eating the nuts as they fall into the water. Whoever partakes of the Salmon of Knowledge then absorbs that wisdom.

The hazelnut represents the end of the year cycle for the parent tree, yet is also the beginning germ of new life. While it appears to be a small thing, it is the seed of new potential with which we all jump. Like the nut, The Fool is the first step towards manifestation.

On the far right of the composition, at the edge of the cliff, is a copse of hazel trees, with the waters of the well running forth in three streams.

The inclusion of the hazelnut is the result of a dream in which the model, Robin, came to me with a hazelnut in her hands, saying she had dug it up in her backyard. Within the dream, I proceeded to tell her the story of the Celtic hazelnuts of wisdom. Upon waking, I knew this had to be included in the painting.

My mother said of this painting that the dog was the one who really had faith, loyally accompanying the Fool wherever she goes. Does the dog warn of impending danger, or does she encourage the jump? The Fool does not look down; she is joyous and not afraid.

I am revisiting this archetype in the upcoming work, Dreaming of the Fool. This time, I get to wear the jester’s cap!

The imagery for this new painting was inspired by meeting a gentle fellow who was dressed as a perfect Fool while we were at the Merry Maidens stone circle in West Penwith, Cornwall — but that is another story for another time.

All the best, and Namaste,


1. Sallie Nichols, Jung and Tarot – an Archetypal Journey. (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1980), 23.
2. Nichols, Jung and Tarot, 37.
3. Nichols, Jung and Tarot, 41.
4. John Matthews, The Celtic Shaman – a Handbook. (Rockport, MA: Element, 1995 edition), 37.

Also posted in Archetypes and symbolism, Art Travels, Celtic history and mythology Tagged , , |

Taking Time: Looking at things differently

This post originally appeared as a feature article in the March 2016 issue of my newsletter, Off the Easel.

Patterns, St Tabitha'sThe Purple SpiralCloud Planet with Jack-o-Lantern Face, Corrimony Cairn

“I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty.” (Georgia O’Keeffe)

When I saw the following tweet by David Borthwick (@BorthwickDave), I was delighted:

“Turn your back on sunset: watch what the trees do when you are looking the other way.”

His eloquent words were accompanied by a lovely shot of dancing limbs painted deep rose and burnt orange by the fading light. I have noticed this myself many times – trees facing the closing day are set aflame by the retreating sun.

Seeing things differently is a major component of the artist’s mental toolbox. Sometimes that means looking in an altogether different direction, or, like Georgia O’Keefe, taking the time to see things on behalf of others — which is perhaps as good a definition of the role of artist as any other.

“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” (Georgia O’Keeffe)

When I was in Painswick, Gloucestershire, in the famed Cotswolds region of England, I made a discovery. Before our arrival, I had not heard of a holy well there, but as an enthusiast, I knew that wells could reveal their whereabouts via street names. The city of Wells in Somerset, home to the famed cathedral, is itself named for the presence of three wells. A bit of code breaking or translation is sometimes involved – it helps to know that Tobar is Irish and Scottish Gaelic for well or spring, for example.

When I saw “Tibbiwell Lane” on the map at the bed and breakfast, I was eager for the quest.

We found the modest well wedged between the lane and a retaining wall. The clear, refreshing water flowed from a stone channel into a small, shallow pool just below. A gentleman who lived above was out tending his garden, and he showed us an inscribed stone on the wall: Saint Tabitha, the origin of the “Tibbi” part of Tibbiwell Lane. This well was dedicated to her.

At first, I photographed the entire well in a more documentary fashion, showing it in its narrow space. As I got closer and started looking for more unique views and angles, however, I began to capture what I felt were more artistically successful images.

The Purple Spiral and Patterns, St Tabitha’s were two such works from this shoot. Focusing on the way the bright light fragmented the leaves below the surface or on the spiraled snail shells from the well’s encased inhabitants led me to discover more than just the small well itself.

Had I been satisfied with my initial photos and not taken the time to look closer, I would not have been so fully rewarded.

Another of my photographs, Cloud Planet with Jack-o-Lantern Face, Corrimony Cairn is perhaps a more extreme example of my desire to photograph the essence of a location beyond the appearance of the outer whole. I realize now that by lying down in the center of the Scottish cairn and looking up at the blue sky peeking through the clouds where the capstone had been removed, I aimed to capture the substance of the place as I experienced it.

I also now utilize this philosophy of seeing when installing certain paintings. My ceiling boss paintings are designed to hang from and parallel to the ceiling. When developing these works, I was inspired by the medieval carved wooden ceiling bosses in St. Andrews Church in South Tawton, Dartmoor, England. I designed this installation to give a viewer the same sense of place as I had when visiting the church. At the opening reception when I debuted these works, it amazed me how many viewers neglected to look up unless prompted.

South Tawton Ceiling Boss: The Green Man (Simhasana -- Lion's Breath)South Tawton Ceiling Boss: Sheela Na Gig (Supta Baddha Konasana -- Reclining Cobbler's Pose)Installation View, South Tawton Ceiling Bosses

I invite you to take up the artist’s stock in trade – to take the time to really see something. Perhaps this will be a subject that you pass by every day, like one of O’Keefe’s flowers. They say that artists can see approximately thirty values of any given color, whereas non artists only see ten. I think this is simply a matter of training the eye, of taking the time to discern subtle shifts in light, dark, and intensity.

If you are a fellow artist, I encourage you to look again, and to look within. To see with the wide eyes of a child, with that boundless level of wonder, enthusiasm, and curiosity.

All the best, and Namaste,


Also posted in Art Travels, Creativity, General art discussion and philosophy, Inspirational Quotes, Other artists, Painting and painting techniques, Photography and photography techniques, Travel Tagged , , , |

Ready, Set…Go! Rabbit Races Turtle

Which painting should I print next as a greeting card? Cast your vote today in the Comments section below.

Turtle took the leg on the 24 hour #RabbitRacesTurtle Twitter poll, but I am accepting votes here through January 31st! Scroll below to learn who won!

Manifestation of RabbitTurtle's Progress

First contestant: Rabbit

The original version of this article was first published in my March 2015 newsletter, Off the Easel, as “Counting Rabbits!”

In February 2015, I tweeted the painting above, The Manifestation of Rabbit. I asked followers to count how many invisible rabbits they could find, and I think a few people all over the world are still counting rabbits!

Local subscribers may recall seeing this work in person, and if you have visited my downtown studio, I probably had you looking for rabbits. But do you know the full backstory of the piece? As I always say, everything I paint really happened.

On our first trip to Ireland in the fall of 2001, I was thrilled to visit the Lough Gur region, around half an hour south of Limerick. Lough Gur is an area rich in both archaeological remains and legend. Nearby, in Knockainy, is the sacred hill Cnoc Áine,the ceremonial inauguration site for the ancient kings of Munster, the southwestern “fifth” division of Éire.

Cnoc Áine features several prehistoric sites, including a burial mound at the summit said to be the sidhe1 mound of the Irish Celtic Goddess Áine. A Goddess of love, fertility, animals, and prosperity, Áine created Lough Gur, and local legends about her abound. Honored on Cnoc Áine at Midsummer, in more recent times, she also became known as Queen of the Faeries.2

My map of the sites on the cnoc left a lot to be desired. I was searching for what was labeled a holy well, but we were completely turned around. Once we started heading in the correct direction, we crossed field after field, carefully dodging the electric wire fences that ran between each segment of land. Then at last, in the distance, we saw a fairly short standing stone.

As we approached, a rabbit ran out, appearing to form out of the stone itself! He is depicted here, but how many invisible rabbits can you find? Be sure to take a few moments with the painting before you read further.

There is also a secret to the stone. Do you see it?

After our rabbit friend ran away, I felt compelled to run my hands along the edges of the stone.3 It felt quite smooth, as if I was not the first person to have this idea — though it had likely also been rubbed by generations of cattle.

What surprised me, though, is how for all the world, the stone felt like the contours of a woman’s body. Inspired by the art of the Celts, in which they represented neither one thing nor another but both, I wanted to depict the stone as a woman with raised arms.

I did not have to alter the stone’s actual appearance much at all to create this effect. I tried to put the semblance of facial features on the stone with lichen to play with the balance, but this was way too much — thus confirming that I had the illusion exactly in the middle where it needed to be.

When seeking rabbits, some viewers see a running hare in the long, low cloud on the right — I wish I had thought of that! Some find a rabbit in the stone instead of a woman — her breasts become the cheeks; her arms, the ears. Rabbits multiply, and I agree she looks rabbit-like. Some viewers see her raised arms as angel wings.

I imagine she is Áine.

Want to know how many intentional rabbits there are and their location? Email me for the answer and the rest of the story!

Keep counting rabbits! High quality giclée reproductions, printed on archival rag watercolor paper with archival inks, are available of this painting. Visit my shopping cart page for details on pricing and available sizes.

1. Sidhe (singular sidh; pron. “shee”) or  is Irish Gaelic for fairy. For example, Bean Sidhe is Bean (woman) + Sidhe (fairy) = Banshee.

2.  These beings are respectfully referred to by a more indirect phrase, such as the Fair Folk or Good People.

3. Please note that when visiting such sites, one should take great care not to disturb any lichens or mosses growing on standing stones or other antiquities. In many cases, they can be quite old and valuable in their own right! 

Second contestant: Turtle

The original version of this article was first published in my April 2015 newsletter, Off the Easel, as “Turtle Always Gets There.

Not all of my paintings are derived from physical sacred sites — some are a result of meditation. One such work is Turtle’s Progress.

A few years ago, I experienced a temporary knee injury. During the rehab process, while meditating on the issue, I saw myself as a turtle, heading towards my higher self — my future healed self, if you will. The uplifting thought I came away with from this image was,

“It may take Turtle awhile to get there, but Turtle always gets there.”

My husband took the reference photographs of me in a field at a park just north of our city. I was pleased that daffodils were blooming at the time, because I saw them as a symbol of the new beginnings and growth that I felt was inherent in the message of the painting.

As for the turtle, my model was Jack from a nearby Nature Science Center. I selected him from three candidates, and after I described what I needed to the Center’s helper, she placed Jack on the floor, heading in the direction of the light.

That box turtle could really move! He was quite the sprinter — I have several reference shots that are out of focus because he was moving so quickly! A couple of years later, I was delighted to see Jack again and to learn that he and his wife were expecting, as she had recently laid a clutch of eggs: Turtle’s new beginnings.

Vote now!

Who will win, Rabbit or Turtle? Vote now in the Comments section below!

Fans of the animal last to the finish line need not despair, however — eventually, images of both works will be available in the greeting card format.

Thank you for voting!

All the best, and Namaste,



And the Winner is…Rabbit!

In the end, Turtle couldn’t maintain his initial lead even with some additional votes, and his long-eared friend overtook him. Rabbit won by more than a “hare” with a final total of 61% of the votes.

I deeply appreciated the various thoughtful comments I received about both works. Several people remarked that they liked both paintings, and found the decision to be a difficult one. Much appreciation to all those who voted!

Also posted in Art Travels, Meditation and yoga, Travel Tagged , , |

Origins of a Painting: Second Sight/2nd Site

Second Sight/2nd Site
diptych, 12″ x 30″
oil on oil primed linen, ©2012 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
The Rollright Stones, King’s Men Stone Circle
Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border, England

Originally published in my April 2015 issue of Off the Easel

Before leaving England on our 2008 trip, I was determined to see the Rollright Stones. After all, many visitors describe this as an eerie site, and the King’s Men Stone Circle was where my husband’s photography mentor was pulled down by an unseen force.

An internet search will yield you a bumper crop of folklore and interesting stories about this site. I confess an additional appeal for me was that this megalithic site was the shooting location for the Tom Baker Doctor Who episode The Stones of Blood.  How could we resist working the Rollrights into our itinerary before heading back to London for the return flight?

The Rollright Stones are actually comprised of three sites. Joining the late Neolithic King’s Men stone circle are the Neolithic dolmen called The Whispering Knights, and The King Stone monolith dating from the middle Bronze Age.  Since we were not pulled down in the stone circle, I surmise we were welcomed by the guardians of the location. As I circumnavigated the circle — legend says that you cannot count the stones since you will get a different number each time — I was struck by the unusual, contorted and weathered appearance of each limestone form. The stones truly looked as though they were the frozen spirits of various totem animals and ancestors.

As I came to one stone in particular, I was drawn to the nearly circular opening within the limestone. Compelled to look through the hole as if it was a frith divination tube from Irish and Scottish tradition1, I found my message in the limited depth of field inherent in human vision. I was reminded that if you look at the stone, that is what is in sharp focus to the exclusion of the hazy background, whereas if you focus on the fields beyond, the texture of the stone becomes soft. To me this was a metaphor: what you focus on is what you see, both literally and figuratively. If you look for the positive aspects in your life, you will find them, but if you look for the negative attributes, you will see only that and no longer notice the good things in your life.

I photographed the stone focusing both ways, using the low light on this cloudy late afternoon to my advantage and exploiting limited depth of field with my camera. After printing a reference photograph of the stone the way it actually appears (as seen on the viewer’s left of the diptych), I flipped the other version with the landscape in focus using photo editing software before printing. Once I had both reference photographs in hand, I played with cropping the proportions and the location of the intersection between them until I arrived at a pleasing orientation.

To echo the concept of sight, I wanted an arrangement reminiscent of eyes or a mask. I folded the two reference photos along the guidelines I had drawn, but when I placed the two sides together, I discovered something quite amazing — at the intersection between the two photographs a perfectly formed swallowtail butterfly appeared at the very top edge of the stone! When painting this, I only had to clarify the bottom forked edge of the hind wing; the butterfly shape was clearly there. Had I cropped and joined the photos in any other way it would have gone undiscovered. When unplanned events like this happen during my creative process, I delight in such synchronicities.

All the best, and Namaste,


1 The frith divination seeing tube was formed with one’s hands, and was particularly employed to located someone or something who was lost. The origin of this augury is attributed to St Brigit or St Mary.

Also posted in Archetypes and symbolism, Art Travels, Celtic history and mythology, Creativity, General art discussion and philosophy, Painting and painting techniques, Photography and photography techniques, Prehistoric site, Travel Tagged , , , , |

The Day We Left Orkney. Part I: You *Can* Get There From Here


First edition originally published January 23, 2015

Hoy Sound Sylvia Wishart, 1987 oil and mixed media on paper, from the Pier Arts Centre Collection © the Estate of Sylvia Wishart

Sylvia Wishart – Hoy Sound
1987, oil and mixed media on paper
from the Pier Arts Centre Collection, used with permission
© the Estate of Sylvia Wishart

When I do my home yoga practice, the light comes in through the dining room window, casting rectangular reflections on the glass of one of my photographs of Loch Ness. This interplay of light and shape layered on shape always reminds me of an artist whose work I was delighted to discover while we were travelling in Orkney during our Scotland trip in the fall of 2012. Each time I see them, these reflections conjure up Sylvia Wishart’s compositions.

Part I: You CAN Get There From Here. 

When planning your itinerary to Scotland, don’t let the seeming remoteness of any of the outer islands deter you from a visit. While there are many daytrip tours heading to the Orkney Islands from the Scottish mainland, there is so much to explore, especially if you plan to do any island hopping, that I recommend you allow several days here. We allotted four, but could easily have stayed longer, and as fans of prehistoric sites, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit.

Glacial erosion resulted in stone beaten by the sea. Stretches of treeless, windblown land are topped with distant rounded hills — a visual combination to inspire the artist’s heart and eye. This is the furthest north I have ever been, and place names here are derived from Old Norse as a reminder of Orkney’s history and your proximity to Scandinavia.

The Mainland, as the largest island is known, is particularly littered with prehistoric remains — including The Ring of Brodgar, an amazingly large stone circle that boasts Viking graffiti on one of its stones. As you drive along a thin strip of land sandwiched between two lochs through the archeologically rich Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, you will see such wonders one right after another. An ongoing archeological dig at the Ness of Brodgar reveals layers of history that hint at the great importance of this area to the ancients.

The Watchstone Near the Stones of Stenness in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, Scotland digital photograph © Amy Funderburk 2012 All Rights Reserved

The Watchstone — near the Stones of Stenness in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, © Amy Funderburk 2012, All Rights Reserved

The weather was beautiful during most of our Orkney days, though my husband swears he saw snow mixed with the spitting rain as we boarded the small ferry to get to these islands. After all, they say that you can experience all four seasons in one day in Scotland. I was more enamored with the small pod of dolphins I spotted immediately as we pulled away from the dock than whether or not any of the cold precipitation was actually frozen. The day we went to the capital city of Kirkwall was rainy, but since we were inside the highly recommended Orkney Museum in the Tankerness House, the Earl’s Palace, and splendid Saint Magnus Cathedral for the day, our plans worked out fairly well.

Until, that is, the day we left.

It was my husband’s birthday. We had a grand itinerary planned — we were to board the departing ferry at 11 AM, then have a lovely drive down to Loch Ness, stopping at various points of interest to photograph along the way.

But Mother Nature had other ideas. A big storm was due, and it had started its approach the previous night. The waves crashed dramatically along the causeways as we drove around on our last  day. Our bed and breakfast hostess in Ophir was very accommodating, and offered us our room for another night should we need it.  But all seemed well according to her sources — the ferries were scheduled to run as usual the next morning. At any rate, we had already booked accommodations at our bed and breakfast on the northern shore of Loch Ness, so I was very relieved that all seemed well with our departure plans.

After eating breakfast the next morning, including a cute birthday cupcake for Jimmy, we packed the rental car and off we went to catch the ferry on South Ronaldsay. After a 45 minute or so drive, we pulled into the carpark for the ferry, only to learn from the office that during the crossing earlier that morning, the captain found the waves too choppy and treacherous, so if he made another trip, it would not be until the end of the day.

Not one for much spontaneity or the uncertainty of a crossing with no guarantee, I immediately went into lateral thinking mode as if I were a contestant on The Amazing Race. “The other ferry company!” I thought. “The one that sets out from Stromness — they have larger ferries. I bet they are running!” With a cartoon light bulb over my head that shone brightly with this idea, I eagerly called the number that was listed in my guidebook. Luckily, they were operating as scheduled! However, the next crossing wouldn’t be until 4:45 PM. So much for our leisurely drive on a sunny day, but at least we would be able to get off the island and keep to our plans to arrive in Loch Ness, albeit several hours later than expected. After making a booking, we headed out, driving north for an hour to Stromness.

We had hoped to visit this town of stone and narrow lanes on our trip, but as it goes with an overloaded itinerary, we hadn’t made it. Now we had a few hours to spend here before our ferry departure. The main draw for us was to visit The Pier Arts Centre, so after finding the ferry dock, the Arts Centre, and a place to park (the latter being easier said than done!), we set out to explore this artistic treasure trove of over 180 works by 20th Century British artists. Founded in 1979, as the name suggests, the Centre is right on the water, an old building originally converted to hold the collection of founder Margaret Gardiner.


View of the Harbor from Inside The Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney digital photograph © Amy Funderburk 2012 All Rights Reserved With kind assistance and permission from The Pier Arts Centre

View of the Harbor from Inside The Pier Arts Centre on a Rainy Day, Stromness, Orkney
digital photograph
© Amy Funderburk 2012 All Rights Reserved
With kind assistance and permission from The Pier Arts Centre

Before our artistic exploration could commence, however, there was also the matter of notifying the Loch Ness bed and breakfast of our delayed departure. My calls weren’t going through on my mobile for some reason, so email was my only hope.

The Pier Arts Centre to the rescue! The staff was very accommodating and welcoming in our time of need. They had a room with free WiFi, so I was able to use my laptop to contact our next home away from home and alert the hostess to our impending tardiness.  Shelter from the cold rain, a rescued day spent looking at a rich, varied art collection, and a free WiFi hotspot as well — what more could The Pier Arts Centre provide?

I had first seen a piece of Sylvia Wishart’s work at the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall. Her signature use of textures and unusual reflected shapes, as well as her penchant for including rabbits and birds made Wishart’s distinctive style stick in my mind. As I sat in the meeting room that graced my laptop with WiFi capability, when I saw the large painting before me, I knew it was clearly painted by the same artist. It was there that I fell in love.

Stay tuned for my next post, Part II: Sylvia Wishart. The best artist you may have never heard of, unless you’ve visited Orkney.

Many thanks to the Pier Arts Centre for their assistance.  The above image of Hoy Sound by Sylvia Wishart — the painting that hung in the meeting room — was provided by the Pier Arts Centre and used here with their kind permission. For more information, please visit their website.

For a wealth of information about Orkney, I highly recommend the website Orkneyjar: the Heritage of the Orkney Islands.

All the best, and Namaste,


Also posted in Art Travels, Other artists, Travel Tagged , , , , , |

Really Seeing a Place

photograph © James C. Williams 2010 All Rights Reserved

Funderburk sketching at the White Horse of Uffington, England. © James C. Williams 2008 All Rights Reserved

First edition originally published March 18, 2014

The last crocuses have now been joined by armies of cheerful daffodils, bluebells, and hyacinths, all bowing their heads today under the weight of today’s sleet and freezing rain, but still promising that spring is on the way.

My friend, Winston-Salem pastel artist Elsie Dinsmore Popkin, said she never felt as though she had really seen a place unless she had drawn it. Elsie passed away a few years ago, but this insight has always stayed with me.

I came across her 1997 Artist’s Statement yesterday when going through some old curatorial files from my days as an Exhibitions Coordinator. In her statement, Elsie also shared:

“I hope that the experience of seeing my pastels will open the viewer’s eyes to her own surroundings, will help her to see and rejoice in the forms and colors and beauty of the world around her.”

Indeed, I share in this intention, and perhaps Elsie’s concept of drawing a location in order to fully connect with it was an inspiration for me when I started a travel sketchbook. Since our first trip to Ireland in 2001, whenever I feel moved by a particular site on our journeys, I will take the time to draw, attempting to harness the energy of the place with my pencil onto paper. When creating final works, I refer to these drawings along with my reference photographs.

As Elsie put it, we try to express “the essence of the landscape,” as if to distill the fundamental nature of a location into a few marks of graphite instead of selecting a single, potent word.

On this St Patrick’s Day, I wish you slan agus beannacht,1


Irish Gaelic for “health and blessings.”

Image credit: Amy Funderburk drawing in her travel sketchbook at the White Horse of Uffington, Oxfordshire, England; 2008. Photo by James C. Williams, copyright 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Also posted in Art Travels, Drawing and drawing techniques, General art discussion and philosophy, Other artists, Travel Tagged |

Painting the negative spaces


Snow Shadows  -  digital photograph © Amy Funderburk 2014 All Rights Reserved

Snow Shadows
digital photograph, © Amy Funderburk 2014 All Rights Reserved

First edition originally published February 20, 2014

A couple of weeks prior to the deeper snow we had last week, the winter sky delivered just enough to coat the earth in a cold, white, fluffy, two inch blanket.

Each day when I wake up, the first thing I do is open the bedroom curtains and let in the light. That day, I was struck by the pthalo blue shadows cast by the trees on the crisp snow. The whiteness covered the back yard, erasing all the usual terrestrial textures and identifying characteristics, allowing these shadows to take center stage.

What remained were terms that will be familiar to fellow artists — negative and positive shapes.

When I taught a beginning drawing class for adults, my students would consistently gain the most from the exercise on positive and negative shapes. Through this technique, your right brain (where art, dreams, and creativity reside) is highly activated. Participants would always come back to class the following week filled with amazement at how they had learned to see in a new way. A student once described the sensation as seeing more clearly, as if into an additional dimension of depth.

Simply put, if you look at a chair, the chair itself is comprised of positive shapes. The shapes of air around the chair — those that reside between each positive shape and divide each segment of wood, metal, or fabric from the other — are the negative shapes, or space. Each defines the other, and are equally important. Drawing air — how Zen does that seem? How simple sounding a thing, to draw air?

As I reflected on those striking blue shadows cast on the white snow throughout the day, I thought how they were an analogy for what I look for when painting the sacred sites I visit. I seek to depict that which is there, but not always noticed. The subtle or intangible which is often felt, whether consciously or subconsciously, but not always acknowledged or realized. Layers of energetic history charge the air and stoke the fires of imagination. 

I paint the negative spaces.

All the best, and Namaste,

If you would like to read more about the drawing technique I have described, I highly recommend the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.

Also posted in Art Travels, Drawing and drawing techniques Tagged , |