Peter Shepard Cole
I was introduced to painting and surfing as a child by my father, one of Hawaii’s big wave pioneers. A lifelong love of art and the sea converge in my series of Rocky Point paintings. Based on photographs taken swimming in front of my parents’ house, these paintings convey movement and the play of light on a dynamic surface.
Perched above eight lanes of the roaring H1 freeway, the Bishop Museum seems cut off from time, in denial about the changes that have taken place around it. Growing up on Oahu, the old stone building captured my imagination with its animal specimens, Polynesian artifacts and paintings from Hawaii’s past. This museum serves as a conceptual source as I create paintings for a revisionist museum of Hawaiian history, critiquing the events and repercussions following Captain James Cook’s arrival to Hawaii in 1778.
Since contact with western civilization, Hawaiian history has been characterized by the clash of island life and western industry. This provides a fascinating narrative concerning the formation of a hybrid culture in a global economy. My paintings incorporate elements appropriated from a variety of historic sources including English lithographs of extinct Hawaiian birds, vintage photographs of the Hawaiian royalty, and the work of artists who were sailors on board Cook’s Pacific Ocean voyages. I execute portraits, landscapes and still lifes in the European tradition to remind the viewer that histories are constructed by the conquerors. As a Caucasian fortunate enough to have grown up in a land of such tropical beauty, my work strives to interpret cross-cultural experience.
I find a parallel between the loss of Hawaiian cultural identity and the extinction of endemic flora and fauna. Many bird species of symbolic significance to the Hawaiian royalty disappeared towards the end of the 19th century, a time of dramatic political, social and environmental change. Captain Cook’s ship and extinct Hawaiian birds are recurring motifs in my art. For instance, in my painting Princess Ka’iulani, I create a hybrid silk-screened pattern with Cook’s ship and Hawaiian bird imagery. The repeated graphic design forms a wallpaper backdrop, which suggests western mass production, while simultaneously honoring the floral patterning of Polynesian tapa prints. Depicted in front of the pattern is Princess Ka’iulani, who was the next in line for the monarchy when sovereignty ended. Eager for the trade benefits of annexation to the United States, American businessmen overthrew the Hawaiian government in 1894. Devastated by the turn of events, Ka’iulani died of rheumatism in 1899, only twenty-three years of age. In my painting, her Victorian attire and tragic gaze allude to the collision course between divergent cultures and values.
Hawaii’s indigenous landscape is now violated by fast food franchises, shopping malls and tract houses. From sugar, ranch and pineapple industries in the 19th Century, to resorts, golf courses and tract developments now, shortsighted, self-serving decisions are as continuous in Hawaiian history as past, present and future. I paint images that address this corrosive force of the consumer marketplace upon the Hawaiian geography. I find inspiration in the post-industrial architecture of abandoned sugar mills, as well as utopian stereotypes of island life used to create a false dream of paradise, one that dissolves into a rust-stained nightmare.