This is a humiliating first. Not even five minutes into my conversation with Peter Zhuo and I’m already weeping. I’ve never cried while interviewing someone before. But this is it: What opened up the floodgates for me is hearing the stirring story of a young struggling artist and the passing of his muse — his greatest supporter of all.
Peter Zhuo is best known as Peter Draw — which is befitting, in more ways than one, since his real surname sounds like a toddler cutely mispronouncing “draw”. Recently recognised as one of the Junior Chamber of Singapore’s Ten Outstanding Young Persons of 2018, the 34-year-old artist became the award’s first and only repeat recipient since its introduction in 1984. It was exactly ten years ago that Peter Draw was given the initial recognition for his role in empowering and protecting children who cannot protect themselves, notably by organising art movements for disaster-stricken kids, helping them to cope.
He uses his first love — drawing, which he picked up when he was only three years old — to remind and inspire the people around him to first, love.
But the startling thing is that Peter’s love for love actually stems from sorrow. He recalls how when he was six years old, had gotten kicked out from a free trial art class taught by an artist, likely because Peter wasn’t seen as a potential customer. “I couldn’t afford to pay for future lessons. And to think, of all people, it was an artist — someone I wanted to be when I grow up — telling me to forget about drawing… that I couldn’t hold the pencil properly. I remember feeling it was unfair and went home crying.”
It was then that his beloved grandfather found him and told the sobbing pre-schooler an extraordinary anecdote, albeit slightly skewed, to cheer him up. The story involved a young boy who was told he couldn’t draw for the same reasons. “My grandpa talked about how the boy continued to believe in his dreams of becoming an artist, worked hard for it and became very successful.”
Peter continues, “Grandpa said the boy went on to create Disneyland and even told me his name: Picasso. It was only when I studied art history in school that I realised that Picasso and Disney were two very different people. My grandfather didn’t have the opportunity to go to school, you see. He started working in his early teens through various tough jobs.”
Still, that fabled tale had a profound impact on Peter Draw and encouraged him to not give up, even when times were tough. But his most heartbreaking experience came only ten years after the appalling art class episode, when his grandfather died. “His last lesson passed on to me, indirectly through his passing, was that sometimes we don’t realise the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory. Sometimes our loved ones cannot wait forever for us. Sometimes ‘later’ becomes ‘never’. He always believed in my dreams. I regret not asking what were his.”
Today, Peter Draw has co-founded his own art and animation studio. But his current mission entails less about being an artist and more about what he does as an artist. In defiance to all he’s been through, he wants to make people happy, which according to Peter is “the noblest art” of all. He puts the four Guinness World Records he’s achieved — which he broke on Children’s Day in 2007, 2010 and 2014 for largest caricature, largest art lesson, longest drawing, and longest drawing by an individual — behind him, not caring if they still currently hold.
“The beautiful thing in life is to have something, but not to own it — that’s real freedom. Plus, our role as adults is to set the benchmark, as high as we can, and empower young people to reach that benchmark or better yet, surpass it. There are some adults who behave in very un-adult ways these days, preventing young people from reaching their goals. Maybe it’s about control or insecurity. Too many people are spending too much time working on too many things to please too many people. Just do the few things for that few people you really care about — if you realise, I had children congregate all around me during the breaking of my four Guinness World Records because from day one, it was always about them,” he says.
To further champion his causes for children’s welfare and unconditional love is Peter’s most prolific character-creation to date: A red-sweater-clad boy called Ai. Peter, who also regularly sports a red sweater himself, explains the idea behind the cute caricature, “The design of Ai actually comes from my grandpa’s Picasso-creating-Disneyland story. If you realise, the shape of the hair was inspired by the dove drawn by Picasso, and the three round shapes forming Ai’s face and ears come from the silhouette of Mickey Mouse. The idea of Ai essentially came from losing my loved one — grandpa. Even though the loved one is lost, love itself can never be lost.”
Inspired by hanyu pinyin, Peter even expands on the four sounds of Ai, creating a weighty string of meaning: From āi or 哀 (which means sorrow) to ài or 愛 (which means love). Peter explains, “The message of Ai comes from the sense of urgency of seeing people I know going through depression, and sometimes, leading to really undesirable outcomes, and it often goes unspoken. This triggered me to show people that this love or hope that might appear to be not visible to us, is actually all around us; that love can happen anywhere. Ai is cute, and being cute has its value in society — it gets people’s attention. What I want to do with such attention is to collaborate with people to spread love.”
“Cute has its value in society: It gets people’s attention. What I want to do with such attention is to collaborate with people to spread love.” — Peter Draw, about the purpose of creating his cute character called Ai
Ai will soon spread more love in a stop-motion animation short developed by Peter Draw and his team, which will be released worldwide via the World Wide Web on November 24, 2018. Peter is also hard at work in trying to pioneer a new postmodern art movement he is calling “post-post”. “I’ve started a digital art movement collaborating with many of the top urban photographers on Instagram to show people that love can happen anywhere. I’ve made cute graffitis of Ai over other people’s photos, in official partnerships, and it’s gaining attention from photographers and artists from a few places.”
Peter’s post-post art movement hopes to crystallise this point of civilisation, where everyone can be a post-post artist, since many already put their own spin — filters and “graffitis” — over their images before posting them online. He’s looking to get partners and institutions to establish this grassroot movement, which he hopes to be as culturally successful as Superflat, the postmodern art movement founded by Takashi Murakami, an artist he admires.
And to Peter, taking risks and failing may be scary but that’s not the point. “If I fail, it doesn’t matter because it’s a personal loss, but if I succeed, I hope to impact people and put a smile on their faces.” And to the unkind artist who failed Peter as a kid, he has only this to say to that person, “Have more love in life.”
Peter Draw draws on these three rules on how to live a fulfilling life:
1. Create your own category
“I like to tell children to forget about being number one. It’s stressful, it’s dramatic, it’s tiring — not only to yourself, but also to people around you. I prefer the idea of being the only one.”
2. Be bothered
“Some people don’t spend their time being bothered that they can’t change the world because there’s a part of them that thinks its impossible. I choose to be bothered by that.”
3. First, love
“Everything is hard, but how difficult can hard be when you love someone or something enough? Unconditional love is impossible to ignore, and I believe unconditional love will change the world.”