Have A Very Recycled Christmas

Elizabeth Freeman, the heart and soul of the Festival of Lights PHOTO COURTESY OF TIM DELAVEGA

Elizabeth Freeman, the heart and soul of the Festival of Lights PHOTO COURTESY OF TIM DELAVEGA

Santa’s elves were busy this year, bustling away in their workshop to create oneof-a-kind, trash-to-treasure decorations for the annual Festival of Lights.

“The elves are everywhere,” says Elizabeth Freeman, art director and founder of the holiday display, during an interview last month with Midweek Kauai at the Piikoi Building in Lihue.

Tables were filled with “elves” from Kauai High School’s Academy of Hospitality and Tourism, and Kapaa High School’s Interact and Key clubs, along with members of Kauai Community Correctional Center’s Lifetime Stand Program, voluntarily making and refurbishing the decorations currently on display at the Historic County Building. “It takes a community to get up the Festival of Lights,” says Freeman.

She points out the care and attention that each individual puts into their work. Colorful angels and butterflies made of recycled plastic bottles and bubble wrap are just some of the clever items the talented elves were creating on that November weekend.

“Look at these students working. You see what they’ve created?” she asks, picking up an iridescent jellyfish made from a water bottle. “You see how excited they are? I share that experience, that enthusiasm, that excitement for art and creation, and that concept of making something out of nothing, and I believe that stays with you.”

She calls them “super-talented teens,” and also fondly refers to volunteers from the Lifetime Stand program as “awesome gentlemen.” The men not only decorate ornaments, but also make sure all of the adornments are in functioning order.

“They are all ultimate designers and Mac-Gyvers,” says Freeman.

Some of the objects need obvious attention, as they are decades old and originally were part of the late “Auntie” Josie Chansky’s Christmas folk art collection. For some 20 years, Chansky would create a seasonal display at her home in Kapaa that people looked forward to every holiday season.

“I took my son (Wyatt Taubman) when he was little on many occasions, and her heart was so overwhelmingly big that not only was I just touched by what she’d created — trash-to-treasure — she just embraced you with aloha,” says Freeman. Chansky was creating trinkets with bottle caps and Jell-O cups before recycling was even a word.

“She was using materials at hand to make beauty,” says Freeman.

Sadly, after husband Joe died, Chansky planned to end the tradition and sell her artistic belongings in 1996. Freeman, who moved to Kauai from California 30 years ago, could not bear to think of Christmas without Chansky’s holiday display and purchased $3,000 worth of materials from her at a garage sale. With the help of many dedicated volunteers like Tevita Manu Fonua, and groups such as Kauai Fire Department, Festival of Lights has continued annually at the Historic County Building.

“I have endeavored, over the last 19 years, to not only showcase her decorations, but to create a dazzling environment that brings people a sense of wonder and joy,” says Freeman. “I hope people feel they are walking into a wonderland, and leaving with a memory of a beautiful, happy and joyous experience.”

The entire process takes Freeman a year to organize, which includes designing new, innovative pieces each season, like lotus and lily flowers made from aluminum cans that hang from themed Christmas trees.

“I can pull something out of the trash and I can make people smile,” she says.

From plastic water bottles to CDs, Freeman sees beauty in everything. She collects items from places like Scroungers Center for Reusable Art Parts (SCRAP) in San Francisco and enlists the help of friends who save their recyclables for her.

“I look around and see things as opportunities and as raw materials, not as junk. Teaching that means we also are blank slates. We can do anything we want — we can create our lives to do anything we want,” she says.

Teaching people to make something from nothing is empowering to Freeman as a full-time artist and designer.

“I love working with these guys, they are so talented,” she says of her elves in what she calls her “Navy SEAL elf factory.”

“She is just as enthusiastic about this as she was 10 years ago,” says Kiwanis Club president Helena Cooney, who also volunteers her time to help.

Though Freeman is the heart and soul of the operation, she humbly credits her volunteers for continuing to make it possible from the moment they begin making the decorations to the time they spend showing people around the final display, passing out candy canes.

“I know that it’s a gift for the community and that’s what everybody is doing — everybody here is giving a gift to the community,” she says.

The 19th annual Festival of Lights at the Historic County Building is open Christmas Eve (Dec. 24) and Dec. 26 from 6 to 8 p.m.