Surfers of UC San Diego: Peter Shepard Cole ‘95


Peter Shepard Cole ‘95 surfing.

Peter Shepard Cole ‘95

  • College: Muir
  • Major: Visual Arts
  • Hometown: Rocky Point, Hawaii
  • Currently lives: Rocky Point, Hawaii
  • Career: Artist – Peter Shepard Cole

Why did you choose UC San Diego?

I applied to quite a few schools on the West coast and and did a surf/college visit trip with my dad, who’s a surfer also. We just went up the coast seeing the different campuses. I remember being up late the night before I had to decide, and I think Black’s Beach was a big factor in the decision. I had got into Berkeley, but I realized the quality of life for me would be better; I had always relied on surfing as a stress reliever. If you’re studying hard in high school, it was always nice to be able to surf in the afternoon. 

How did you first learn to surf?

My dad was a surfer, and I live now and grew up in a spot called Rocky Point on the North shore of Oahu. It’s sort of in the middle of a lot of really good waves that you see in magazines. Black’s Beach at UCSD provided that power that I was used to here. I never really loved a beach break, but Black’s is it’s its own separate class of a beach break; it’s a lot more like the reef breaks that I grew up surfing in Hawaii.

What inspired you to join the surf team?

In high school, I did amateur surf contests here in Hawaii.  I met surfers Noah Johnson and Chris Malloy and told them I was going to UCSD, and they told me I’d meet Kent and Bryan Doonan. It’s pretty connected. I can’t remember talking to anyone about the surf team, but somehow I ended up doing that. It was more of a social thing in my day. We enjoyed going to contests and surfing, but it wasn’t the most important part of our lives at that point. Everybody was studying, and we just enjoyed surfing. Although the stakes weren’t too high, we still did well!

What did you gain from your experience on the surf team?

It’s so hard to separate the surf team from the rest of my experience with friends. Most of my friends were surfers when I went to UCSD, so my teammates were often my roommates. We had a small rundown house that was full of people living in it. I think there were about seven of us living together… and maybe somebody’s brother slept in the hammock in the back?

Any more fun stories from those surf team days?

One of my roommates, who was moving, came back with a school bus because it was cheaper than renting a truck. So he had this school bus in storage, and we all decided to get it out so we could drive it down to Cabo. There were about 12 of us, with all our surfboards in the back under in a plywood box we made with a bed on top of it. There were a couple of mattresses in the back, couches, and a few rows of actual school bus seats. We drove that thing down there and had a lot of fun on the way.

What about any competition stories?

I can’t remember the victories too much, but the only time I got a trophy was when our body boarders didn’t show up. It was important for our numbers to have a competitor in it. Someone on our team found some kids with with a boogie board, like one of those boards you’d find in a supermarket with a dolphin or something on it, and the kid let us borrow it for a second.

I took the board and paddled out there, no fins or anything. Everyone else is doing their fancy moves, and I’m on this board and go over the falls, land on my belly and just kind of ride it out. Then I start using my hands, doing this sort of slow-motion, 360 kind of thing in the water as I got into the beach. Maybe there were so few people doing the bodyboarding division, I don’t know, but somehow I got a trophy. 

How did surfing complement your UC San Diego education?

Two of my favorite professors were Faith Ringgold and Raúl Guerrero, and both dealt with identity in their work. Early on, I was doing things about the surf culture, like making paintings of my friends. Even on that bus trip, I did a series of paintings related to that. Faith Ringgold talked me into putting it together in a book and taught me how to bind it and everything; she was really supportive of it. That’s just one way surfing was hand-in-hand in my studies.

Peter Shepard Cole ‘95 in his studio.

What are your artistic interests now?

I grew up here in Hawaii, then I went away for college and was in New York for six years. At the San Francisco Art Institute 10 years after undergrad I realized that I need to learn a lot more. I went in there like a sponge, and it was the opposite of my undergrad perspective; it was humbling and I got totally schooled, but came out much wiser for it. But being away from Hawaii all that time helped me decide to take on this Hawaiian history theme, along with the identity themes I had learned from my UCSD professors. The first was a self portrait as Captain Cook, dealing with white man’s guilt, with extinct wild birds all around me. 

The historical backdrop started with that series. And coming back to Hawaii, I think I was just overwhelmed by the ocean and being in touch with this special ocean. It wasn’t really a conscious decision to start painting seascapes— it just felt good. People responded well to them, so I kept doing those and the social commentary/Hawaiian history work. But there’s something about painting water and the flow of oil paint, and how your brush really can mimic all that movement, the dynamic movement of the water. 

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