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Friends since their early youth—and most recently sisters-in-law—Haylee Alai and Neda Loh find spiritual comfort, peace, and tranquillity through the art of watercolor.
Their project, titled Water and Wildfire, features their watercolor paintings, all inspired by the sacred writings of the Baha’i Faith, images of the Baha’i shrines and holy places, and the sweet prayers, writings and quotes by the Central Figures of the Baha’i Faith—the Bab, Baha’u’llah, and Abdu’l-Baha.
Despite living on opposite sides of the country, Neda in Broome, a small town located in far North-West Australia, and Haylee in Sydney, they offer their images as budding watercolor painters through a shared account on Instagram under the handle @waterandwildfire. Haylee and Neda use this platform to share their stories and reflections for each post, offering followers insight, context, history, and a personal connection to their work.
In this interview, Neda and Haylee talk about what inspired them to explore the art of watercolor, how sharing gifts can go beyond those who receive them, and how the Baha’i teachings play directly into their shared vision for their art and their lives:
[Shadi] When and why did you start exploring the art of watercolor?
[Neda] I started painting with watercolor on my year of service at the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa, Israel, in 2010. I’ve always enjoyed any type of visual arts and found endless inspiration during my time in the Holy Land. However, having limited access to art stores forced me to get creative and use anything I could find to make art! I had taken one stick of watercolor paints with me and they became my sole medium for the 18 months I was volunteering there! I even used to grind up old make up, coffee and tea to find new colors and textures. I haven’t been able to experiment like that since!
[Haylee] My desire to paint is linked very heavily to why I use the Baha'i writings in my art. I started watercoloring because I enjoyed drawing and painting so much in the Ruhi study groups I was a part of, and realized that it was a great way to meditate and reflect on the beautiful writings and concepts of the Baha’i Faith. My real interest in watercolor actually developed in 2012 when I saw some of Neda's posts on Facebook that included images of her paintings. The way that she integrated watercolor, the Baha'i holy places and the Baha'i writings touched my heart immediately. As I developed my skill, I began creating watercolor pieces with quotations from the Baha'i writings as gifts for friends, and the act of giving these personalized gifts filled me with joy and I could tell it meant a lot to those who received them.
[Shadi] What inspired your collaboration?
[Neda] I remember the first time I saw one of Haylee’s watercolor paintings, I thought she had been painting for years and years! Her dedication to learning a skill and excelling in it is so inspiring and she’s played a big part in giving me motivation to paint and create artworks. Her creative striving reminds me of this quote by Abdu’l-Baha, where he encourages us to work hard and excel in our craft:
I rejoice to hear that thou takest pains with thine art, for in this wonderful new age, art is worship. The more thou strivest to perfect it, the closer wilt thou come to God. What bestowal could be greater than this, that one's art should be even as the act of worshipping the Lord? That is to say, when thy fingers grasp the paintbrush, it is as if thou wert at prayer in the Temple. - Abdu'l-Baha, from a Persian tablet.
Needless to say, having her as a sister-in-law has been a huge bonus! Haylee also organized a few painting sessions with other youth, which allowed us to spend time together in a creative context. It’s different to catching up over a meal, somehow there is less pressure to make small talk and easier to speak about more elevated concepts. I have tried to carry this where I live and serve and it’s been well-received by young people in particular!
[Haylee] I would say that we have been collaborating "in life" for many years now, and that has now recently evolved into sharing this Instagram account together. I feel that being able to serve the community and participate in Baha'i study courses and seminars together has united our vision and desire for similar things in life. When we both lived in Perth we had the opportunity to paint together and express our constant admiration for each other! I am lucky enough to have Neda as my sister-in-law now, and it just felt natural that we should start this project together.
[Shadi] What inspired you to use Baha'i prayers and writings in your work?
[Neda] I often wonder about why the Baha’i writings are referred to as the “creative word.” I think the soul-stirring nature of the word of God must spark the imagination of so many, and will be the source of countless inventions and artistic creations. As an artist, finding inspiration can be difficult, but the Baha'i teachings never fail in that sense. When in London, Abdu’l-Baha was reported to have said this regarding the influence the holy writings and the highest purpose of art:
When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, quoted by Lady Blomfield in The Chosen Highway, p. 167.
[Haylee] As I mentioned before, it was my participation in a series of Baha'i courses called the Ruhi Institute that prompted my use of the Baha'i writings in my art. I use the Baha'i writings because the concepts, poetry and power of the words are so profound, and I am always able to find a Baha’i quote that seems to suit every situation and make each gift filled with so much love.
[Shadi] What inspires your images?
[Neda] The natural world, the simplicity and beauty of the architecture at the Baha’i World Centre buildings and the Baha’i Houses of Worship—anything and any space that reminds me of our spiritual nature.
[Shadi] How do you choose your specific quotes and associated images?
[Haylee] As most of my paintings have always been given as gifts to friends, I would say that this has had a big impact on the inspiration for the images and quotes. When I know that there is an occasion where I can create a gift for someone, I spend a few days thinking to myself and being open to inspiration from the writings and from nature. At some point, the right quote and image that would match it become clear and then I can begin painting. Sometimes I might think of the Baha'i quote first, and then have to think more about what image would suit it, and sometimes I have an image in my mind and then it is a few days until the right quote becomes clear. To me, the process of thinking of a friend, and choosing a quotation and image that would mean something to them and touch their heart is a really sincere way of showing how much you care about someone and are thinking of their wellbeing.
For example, I created a piece for my friends wedding, which included a quote by Baha’u’llah:
Make me ready, in all circumstances, O my Lord, to serve Thee and to set myself towards the adored sanctuary of Thy Revelation and of Thy Beauty. If it be Thy pleasure, make me to grow as a tender herb in the meadows of Thy grace, that the gentle winds of Thy will may stir me up and bend me into conformity with Thy pleasure, in such wise that my movement and my stillness may be wholly directed by Thee. - Prayers and Meditations, p. 240.
[Shadi] What makes Water and Wildfire unique?
[Haylee] Honestly I don't feel like my work stands out, and I don't feel that it is unique at all! The Baha'i writings are there for everyone to use and be inspired by. The painting that I do is painting that anyone could learn over time (watching Instagram videos of your favorite artists can really help!). The way that I view Water and Wildfire is that it is a way of encouraging others to create art and share it with the world. Beauty takes so many forms, but I believe that an important part of creating beautiful art is the intentions and sincerity with which we do it. Taking time out of our day to engage in the arts is good for our soul and helps us to reflect on life and what is important! It is helpful to remind ourselves of what Baha’u’llah has told us about the role of the arts: “Arts, crafts and sciences uplift the world of being, and are conducive to its exaltation.” - Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 26.
[Shadi] If readers want to learn more about your work and get in touch where should they go?
[Neda] We’d love to hear from you! You can view our work, share, leave comments and get in touch with us through our instagram handle @waterandwildfire