Something from nothing

For 18 years, Kauai’s Festival of Lights has enchanted people with its luminous displays.

But many people who adore the decorations may not know the story of the woman who brought the sets together.

Her name is Elizabeth Freeman. Ever since she was a child, she was an artist who took on a unique form by creating works out of objects others may see as garbage.

“I remember making adobe bricks,” said Freeman. “We were studying the Spanish missions in California made out of adobe, and I snuck all the little drawer match boxes out of the house and I used those little drawers to pat adobe mud into. I don’t think there were any matches left in the house, but I got forms for the adobe bricks. So, from my earliest memory, I considered myself an artist.” 

Freeman’s love of art followed her into adulthood. After she graduated from UCLA, she worked for an environmental communications company in the graphics and art department.

Freeman also expanded her passion into the performance arts and founded a company in California called “Some Serious Business” with two of her friends. They helped find the best performance spaces for the artists and promoted 60 artists in three years.

“Art doesn’t need to be hung on a wall and it doesn’t have to be a sculpture being in your garden,” said Freeman. “Art takes you some place else; it takes you out of your everyday life.” 

Freeman also created stitched patterns, one of which has been displayed in the Smithsonian, and traveled throughout the museum for five years. She has also been featured in The Museum of Arts and Design in New York. 

The artist moved with her son to Kauai from California in 1985. In 1996, they discovered the treasure known as Aunty Josie’s Christmas House. Freeman and her son adored the lights and decorations made from household materials.

But when Aunty Josie’s husband passed away, she decided to sell her Christmas decorations. Freeman purchased all of the pieces and spoke with then-mayor Maryanne Kusaka about donating the art to the county. Delighted, Kusaka asked Freeman if she could set up the art work should a building be found. After collaborating with the County Council, Kauai’s Historic County Building was chosen for the displays and, through Freeman’s direction, the Festival of Lights was born. 

When people come in from the dark into the light, they are enveloped in a cocoon of light.

“It’s something you feel in your heart,” Freeman said. 

Many people aided Freeman with the festival and thanks to her art direction, the students from the Kapaa Interact Club and the Kauai High Academy of Hospitality and Tourism fashioned ornaments for the festival’s Christmas trees. Some of these ornaments include grass huts made of cardboard boxes and Hawaiian print cloth, sparkling butterflies made of plastic bottles and CDs with designs over their metallic surface and jewels in their centers.

Others who helped with the displays include citizens Pam Hoffman and Tevita Manu Fonua. 

“They’re making something from nothing and that’s a very empowering experience, and if you can do that with that, then you can do anything you want in your life,” said Freeman. 

Freeman will continue to establish the Festival of Lights in the future and wishes to provide children and adults with an experience they’ll treasure. The building is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 6 to 8 p.m, through December, including Christmas Eve and the day after Christmas. 

“I’m planting the seeds of memory in children,” Freeman said. “I’m not just thinking about the present time. I’m planting the seeds for wonderful memories of holiday magic that children will always have with them. Just as I remember lying under that tree thinking the world was magic.”

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