Susan Champeny Artist

Create • Travel • Paint • Fun

Lei Plastique - A Lei of Recycled Materials
Created for the Hilo Lei Day Festival, May 1, 2013

Giant Lei for Lei Day

2013 Current Project: An exploration of the waste stream of the Big Island of Hawaii, to create a Giant Lei of recycled
plastics for the Hilo Lei Day Festival. Hilo Lei Day Festival hostess Leilehua Yuen, Queen Hokulani Fo and her Floral Court
are shown presenting the Gaint Lei at the Closing Ceremonies on May 1st, 2013.

Location: Kalakaua Park, Hilo HI


Lei on the East Hawaii Cultural Center


Lei with Artist


Lei Day Team



This is the final installment of the Blog for the Giant Lei of Recycled Plastics. I want to thank the following contributors to the Fuel Grant Fund for their AMAZING support: Barbara, Chris, Gail, Ginny, Jeffrey, Larry, Lisa, Lori, Nancy, Simon, Vickie A., Vicky M., and Wendy! You made this project beautifully possible.

Thank you also for your well-wishes and support as my wife and co-creator Chris Benders went through the very frightening experience of hospitalization with a very life threatening condition. We are both grateful for the visits, telephone calls, emails, and help we both received from all over Hawaii, the Mainland US and the world. It made a huge difference to her survival as well as sustaining the creative project we were working on.

I gathered and cleaned over 140 laundry bottles, 500 plastic lids and a variety of other materials for the lei project. I picked up items from wonderful “collectors” all over the island of Hawaii, driving hundreds of miles in the process.

The Lei Day team hung the Giant Lei on the front of the East Hawaii Cultural Center May 15-May 22.  After that, it was placed in storage as part of the official Lei Day decorations for year 2014 and beyond. I am delighted that it has a permanent home in Hawaii and will be shown annually as part of Lei Day.

What is next? For 2014, I hope to double the length of the Lei to 80-100 feet. I will post online instructions and a template for cutting and folding laundry bottles. That way anyone who wants to clean and cut a laundry bottle flower can add it to the sculpture! This form of “distributed processing” should be a fun and less artist-intensive way for the Lei to continue growing over time.

Meantime, another of my sculptures, “ReinCARnation Hubcap Lilypads” has been accepted for Worcester’s Art in the Park summer sculpture exhibition. When I return to Massachusetts on June 7th, I will start rebuilding that sculpture bigger and better for its new installation on July 25th. The Opening Reception, held in Elm Park, Worcester MA will be 3-6 PM on July 27th. You are all invited!

The recycled art adventures will continue.
Sue Champeny

Kalakaua Park

Kalahaua Park at 3 AM

Sue ready to create

I am ready to make the Giant Lei, wearking the Lei Po 'o Chris made out of plastic scrap.

Gail makes lei

Gail working on the Giant Lei.

Chrissy makes lei

Chrissy makes a lei out of scrap plastic.

Closing Ceremonies

Closing Ceremonies at the Lei Day Festival.

Although Lei Day was on May 1st, preparations for the festival started early on Tuesday April 30th with the erection of the stage and sound system.

I made 2 runs on Tuesday from Kapoho to Hilo. The first was to bring the Lei-making materials. On the way, I stopped at Mark and Ron’s house and cut a huge pile of plants and completely filled the back seat with palm, monstera, ti and birds of paradise.

When I arrived at Kalakaua Park, the stage was set up and my Halau sisters were already decorating it. My giant pile of vegetation was way too small! Fortunately another member of the Ainaloa MCC church came later with a MUCH bigger pile of cuttings from her house. In Hawaii, decorating for an event is a great excuse to clean the yard.

I returned to Kapoho by way of Walmart, to pick up a tent for the festival, then my friend Joe Parker’s house to borrow 2 more folding tables. I barely had room to fit Chrissy and Gail in the car after that.

We stayed at the Hilo Hawaiian 1 mile from the park that night. Chris and Gail actually slept. I volunteered to help guard the sound equipment and stage for the midnight to 3 AM shift.

It was lovely to be in the park at midnight. It was warm and quiet, lit by the moon, and with no rain at all. I had been warned that rain was usual for Lei Day, but that morning I could see the top of Mauna Kea from the hotel room and there was no rain or clouds for the entire day.

The building of the Giant Lei of recycled materials was a HUGE success!

The first lei-makers were 2 girls who strung 10 laundry bottles by themselves. A group of their of classmates from school came next and for half an hour 8-10 kids were at each table working together with great energy and excitement, before they had to go to snack-time. From 10 AM until 2:30 PM visitors continued to flock to the two tables to create more sections of the lei.

Gail and Chrissy taught kids and adults to string the plastic laundry bottles together. Chrissy also created lei po'o out of the laundry bottle scraps, which we wore on our heads. The lei were a bit prickly, but everyone liked the look of them. William Knight, pastor of the MCC church, came to help build the stage tent and stayed to make sections of the lei.

By 2:30 PM, over 40 feet of the giant lei was created and linked together in one large piece. The lei was brought to the stage and presented at the Closing Ceremonies, where it was shown off by the Lei Day Queen’s royal court.

All through the day there had been music, hula, and song going on all around us. It was amazing to be a part of it all. Seated next to us were 20 of the Kupuna – seniors who were expert in Lei making of all kinds. They were very curious about the Recycled Lei and impressed with how it was put together.

As the Festival drew to a close, Leilehua Yuen, amazing festival organizer and Kumu Hula, invited everyone to join hands in a circle for a closing chant. The Giant Lei was laid down in the middle, bathed by the afternoon light and the chanting of the crowd. It was a beautiful and precious moment and it made me cry.

After that, the Giant Lei took a ride up the elevator of the East Hawaii Cultural Center. It will be hung on the front of the EHCC building next Wednesday to celebrate the Month of the Lei.

More recycled art adventures to come,

Laundry Bottle Leis

Leaves for Lei

Laundry Detergent Bottle Leis

Cut and Fold

Folding the flower with a curling iron.


Ropes made of recycled materials - two options.

The Lei Day May 1st deadline is coming up fast! In 8 days the Giant Lei will be created in Kalakaua Park as part of the Hilo Lei Day Festival. In case you don’t have them, here are pointers to the event:

This past week was very sad, as the news of the Boston Marathon bombing reached Chris and me at 10:00 AM last Monday, an hour after it occurred.  We are grateful that no one in our family was injured, though Chrissy’s step-neice was at the finish line and went to assist in the aftermath. Our prayers and well-wishes are so very insufficient in the face of so much suffering.

The best I can offer is a beautiful lei made by the community from recycled plastic. Perhaps it can create a little peace in the world.

IN the past 5 days I picked up lots of laundry detergent bottles, solo cups and plates, and twist ties needed for the artwork. I even picked up at movie night fund-raiser for at the Open Arms MCC church as well as Mr. K’s and several of the Transfer Stations.

The laundry detergent bottles generated four different parts of the Lei, making them one of the best materials gathered. The happy news is that I won’t need as much of the other items, because I am getting so much out of each laundry bottle.

I drilled the lids with ¼-inch holes to be wire-tied together as “flowers”. Then I sliced the bottom and handle off each bottle, and drilled them to make “leaves” and “feathers”. Then I cut the body of the bottles into “orchid” shapes and used a curling iron to bend the “petals” back.

I experimented with making rope to string the parts of the Lei on. I made made the first one out of plastic bags, but it was not very colorful. I found another material at Mr. K’s: onion bags made out of woven red plastic. I cut the bags into 3 parts and braided them. The plastic shredded all over the place and created a big mess, so will not use them in the final piece. However they make great carry bags for other supplies.

My Wellesley College classmates (1979) have sent contributions to the Fuel Grant Fund. Grants have also come in from the following states: Massachusetts, Ohio, New York, California, Hawaii and Indiana. Thank you so much!

More recycling art adventures to come,

Rainbow of Plastic Lids

Rainbow of Plastic Lids

The start of a Lei

The start of a Lei, using dryer vent hose.

Lei of Laundry Bottle Flowers

Lei of Laundry Bottle Flowers

Exciting news: I received my first Fuel Grant via PayPal! It actually was two grants in one, and is much appreciated. This week Fuel Grants helped pay for pickups in southern Puna District and around the Hilo area.

Several people asked me if they should send me items on my list from the Mainland. Oops! The answer is please DON’T! My goal is to use items already on-island as part of the challenge of dealing with the local waste stream, and not to burden the island with any more material from off-shore.

I realize I left off last week with a cliffhanger since I did not yet know if my life-partner, Chris Benders, would be released from Hilo Medical Center. Happy news, she got out Thursday April 4th. She needs lots of rest and weekly blood tests for the 9 months that she will be on blood thinners, but has survived a near-death incident in good order.

On Friday, I was the juror for Recycle Hawaii’s Art of Recycling School Competition in Waimea. I worked with Howard Shapiro and Jay West at the Firehouse Gallery. The most amazing pieces were a set of Elementary School group projects. I was blown away by their originality and teamwork in creating large-scale complex pieces. At the Saturday reception I met some of the creators of that fantastic art.

It was inspiring to see what the Waimea schools were up to, and helped me re-set for working on the Recycled Lei project after more than a week interruption.

I now have two small sections of the Recycled Lei prototype worked out. Section #1 is a rainbow arrangement of laundry detergent bottle caps attached to dryer vent hose. Section #2 is a set of “flowers” made out of the laundry detergent bottles and solo cups, strung on braided plastic bags.

I also discovered a great tool for shaping the laundry detergent bottle flowers after I have cut them – a hair curling iron! Now I am looking for a used one, since I will DESTROY it in the process.

More recycling art adventures to come,

Chris Painting

Chris painting at Hale Ho'okomo

First: THANK YOU again – two more fuel grants have arrived this week – I am so grateful! They continue to pay for the gas to pick up recycled materials at Mr. K’s in Hilo, and at the Keaau and Pahoa Transfer Stations.

The unexpected has happened. Last Thursday my creative and life partner, Chris Benders was struck by severe difficulties breathing. Fortunately I called 911, as she had blood clots in her lungs, which left untended would likely have been fatal. She spent 24 hours in ICU, and is still in Hilo Medical Center as I write this on Wednesday night of April 3rd. The care she has received at HMC has been fantastic. Hopefully she will be released on Thursday morning.

We had a huge outpouring of support during this crisis. Friends called, e-mailed and visited, both the Pastor of the MCC church here and our Hula Kumu came to offer spiritual and emotional support.  My sister flew in for a couple of days and helped me get sleep and food on a regular basis. One of the most frightening things about working far from home is a medical emergency. In this case, we were fortunate in our location, as we have discovered a wonderful base of support in Hilo.

Meantime, the Recycled Lei Artwork project was on a week-long hiatus. I scavenged some pig fencing from a farm ditch in Kapoho the other day, still quite usable as a structural support for the lei. Once Chris is home, I will begin building the prototype, so I can work out any trouble spots. That way I can set people up to make the rest of it at the Lei Day Festival four weeks from now.

The next weeks will be a flurry of gathering and cleaning materials for the Giant Lei. Here is my estimate of what I will need to gather:
500 Laundry Bottle Caps (I have 55 now)
50 Laundry Bottles (I have 10 now)
300 large soft plastic lids (I have 40)
100 styrofoam trays (I have 20)
100 plastic plates (I have 0)
100 plastic cups (I have 30)

One of the exciting challenges is being flexible. The list is only a guess. The artwork is a creation of the waste stream of the Big Island of Hawaii – it is my job to make it beautiful and exciting.

More recycling art adventures to come,

Giant Lei Sketch


Orchid and Heliconia


Foam Flowers


First: THANK YOU and a great big Mahalo!!!

I just received TWO fuel grants! Unlike the Hilo Lei Day Festival, I am NOT a tax-deductable non-profit, so you can’t deduct grants to me on your taxes. However, it makes you eligible for recycled artworks I have made, which currently are:
1. Stryofoam Bottle Holder (grant of $25 or more)
2. A pair of Orchids made out of a Laundry Detergent Bottle (grant of $50 or more)
3. A Lei made out of Soft Lids (grant of $100 or more)

If you send me a grant, let me know if you want one of the above and I will send you a GENUINE, Hawaii-gleaned plastic artwork!

Your fuel grants allow me to buy gas and food, both more expensive than at home. Recycled materials are often free, but getting to the recycling centers can mount up cost-wise. I am so grateful that you are willing to support my artwork – it helps keep the inventing and creating going.

WHAT am I making at the Hilo Lei Day Festival? It will be a Giant Lei made of recycled plastics - at least 40-50 feet long, done as a community-build activity. I hope to display it on the front of the East Hawaii Cultural Center all of May.

I spent this week creating flowers for the lei. I made Orchids from purple laundry bottles, and bent large plastic lids into a hanging Heliconia. The yellow lids from Bustelo Coffee work great! I expect the lei will be 1-pound per foot, but plastic can be dense, so I will mix in lighter material, such as white styrofoam trays flowers.


My new obsession is Dryer Vent Hose, the silver stuff that looks like a slinky. It is the perfect under-structure for the Giant Lei. I will need about 10 of them. I found one at the Keaau Transfer Station for a dollar. I hope I can find more there, as they run about $10-15 each new at Home Depot.

News from the most recent Lei Day Festival meeting: the budget is $5,000. Current funds are $86, with a promise of another $2,000. Most importantly, the East Hawaii Cultural Center has agreed to be the Hilo Lei Day Festival’s Fiscal Sponsor. That gives the Festival non-profit status, so donations to the event are tax deductible!

Leilehua set up two Indiegogo sites to fund musicians and hula performance. It is an experiment, so feel free to look at the sites and give feedback – it is still a work in progress.

It is SUCH a pleasure to work with such a focused, proactive group. I am trying to convince Chris is that we should be part of the overnight set-up crew at the Cultural Center the night before Lei Day. I’d love to do it!

More recycling art adventures to come,

Kalakaua Park in Hilo HI

Kalakaua Park in Hilo

First and Second Failures

First and Second Failures.

Successful Bottle Holder

Final Success!


Monday, I met with Kristine Kubat and Paul Buklarewicz of Recycle Hawaii. Kristine is the master-mind of Zero Waste events

She graciously showed me Kalakaua Park, where Lei Day will be held.  She also made a phone introduction to Roy Kudota, a scrap-recycler who has been very supportive of Lei Day art activities.

Wednesday I met Roy at Mr. K’s, a scrap-recycling center. It is an amazing operation, where his staff sort tons of plastics, glass and non-ferrous metals into giant sacks, then fill cargo containers for shipment and sale off-island. He directed me to a couple of 3 ft high sacks filled with mixed plastics and I quickly came away with a great assortment of laundry bottles and large soft plastic lids.

Next was the Lei Day meeting with fellow planners: Leilehua Yuen, Manu Josiah, Sharon Bowling and Barbara Bowman. Kristine Kubat, arrived with bags of her recycling stash, including a pile of brightly colored Shave Ice cups!

Lei Day will be a Zero Waste event: water stations will be used and we will sell cup holders and refillable water bottles as a fund-raiser. I volunteered to create a cup holder using woven Styrofoam trays to sell as a “make-it-kit”, and Chrissy will make volunteer ID bracelets.

The celebration is expected to have attendance of over 1,000 and a volunteer staff of 90.

After the meeting Chrissy and I stayed for classes taught by Leilehua and Manu: Lei Making, Advanced Hula, Hawaiian Language and Chant, Beginning Hula. This was our introduction to the Halau LeiManu, a full evening commitment each Wednesday, with homework! Chris and I are learning a lot - both fun and challenging.

The rest of the week was dedicated to the sculptural challenge of making a water bottle holder out of styrofoam food trays. I laid out all the materials I’d gathered where I could see them, handle them, walk around with them, re-arrange them, and according to Chris, make annoyed chicken noises. I think she makes that part up.

I tried to weave the foam tray material. Failure! The 1/8th-inch thick foam broke rather than bending. Failure number 2: using hot water to bend the foam in hot water, resulting in bits of wet broken foam and lots of angry chicken noises.

Then success! I cut the trays into narrow slices, stuck them to packing tape in interesting designs and encircled a bottle with them. I now have a working prototype to bring to the Lei Day meeting.

Chris reported that I do NOT make the chicken noise when I built a successful sculpture. Silence is the sign of things reaching completion.

Pi Day Treats

PI Day Treats

03/14/13 part 2


WE did celebrate PI DAY on March 14th, like all good nerds.

We ate Pie Crust Manju, straight from our favorite KTA supermarket, something we can't get easily at home.

Happy 3.14!

Sue and Chris

Hubcap Pink Suitcase


On March 6, I began my biggest and most exciting art adventure yet, 3 months, in the gloriously beautiful state of Hawaii! I am on my favorite of all the Islands, Hawai’i itself, also called The Big Island. I have the exciting honor/pleasure of working with cultural practitioner Leileihua Yuen on this year’s May Day is Lei Day festival, where my part will be to create a huge recycled temporary artwork. I will be working on other projects as well, but Lei Day is the biggest, with 800-1,000 people all coming to celebrate.

I say I, but as always, it’s Chris Benders often doing the writing as my other creative lead. Her job is staying calm, taking pictures, trying to make Plan B on the fly, reminding me to eat and sleep, and packing the sun-block.

Thus far, this is an unfunded residency, so I am planning to issue a call for a fuel grant: jet fuel, gas for the car, fuel for us… I may experiment with a Kickstarter or Indiegogo fundraising option to celebrate my new use of PayPal as an online payment option. If anyone has experience with either, I would love to hear about it!

What have we done so far?

  1. Obtained the art supply case, a large hubcap-pink rolling suitcase, bigger than the ones for our clothes. Because my favorite art store in Hilo folded 2 years ago, I am bringing hard-to-get items: 100 sheets water color paper, Bristol board, Acrylic & watercolor paint, brushes. This is the FIRST time I have traveled to Hawaii (or anywhere else) with more than ONE bag – a big change for me.
  2. Arranged to take Hula classes at the East Hawaii Cultural Center in Hilo, a wonderful way to learn and embed in the community we will be working with.

For Lei Day, I plan to build a giant Lei from locally scavenged plastics. I am not sure what I will find, but I know I will need to be flexible. I also don’t know yet what we can offer in exchange for cash donations to the project. If you have ideas let me know!

Yours in project-planning frenzy!
(and Chris)


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