Sometimes a made-up story can set a real dream in motion. That’s what happened to Peter Zhuo. Growing up poor in 1980s Singapore, he fell in love with drawing but got kicked out of art class at the age of 6. Thankfully, his grandfather was around to encourage him with a fanciful yet inspirational story. The kid stuck with it.

These days the man who now goes by the name Peter Draw travels the world to inspire and support kids like the one he once was. And he thinks big. He holds four Guinness World Records, including World’s Largest Caricature, for one he did of Jackie Chan. A more recent project is First, Love, an exhibition where he used 15,000 blue balloons to create a “cloud of love.”

Now, for the second installment of our Father Figures series, the artist, CEO of Present Private Limited and advocate for happy kids shares how it all started thanks to Grandpa’s fib…

“I drew the Guinness World Record’s largest caricature in front of children from not so well-to-do families, to show them that anything is possible in life. No matter how you begin your life, it’s not about our scars, it’s all about our heart.”

The first promise that changed my life

The first part of the whole of my adult life has been about keeping a promise I gave to my late grandfather. When I was six years old, I was kicked out of a free trial art lesson because the art teacher found out that I couldn’t hold a pencil together properly (I wrap my four fingers around it) and also that I couldn’t afford the $20 fee for future lessons. I got pushed out by the teacher, literally, and fell to the floor outside of the room.

I didn’t walk away because I wanted to learn so much, so I stayed outside the room and tiptoed to look through the tiny space between the window panels. But after a while, I ran home and cried. My grandfather asked me what happened. I refused at first, but he kept asking, so I told him. I asked him, Why am I different from others? He asked me why I wanted to be the same.

He always told me stories to encourage me, and that’s thwat he did next. “There used to be an artist who started poor, and struggled his whole career, he was even kicked out of an art lesson just like you. But he believed in his dreams and never gave up. Before he died, this artist even created Disneyland and did much charity work to protect children like himself when he was younger. The artist’s name is Picasso.”

I told him, I want to be like this artist when I grow up, and also protect other children. 

Of course, as I grew up, I realized my grandfather has been telling me a made-up story. But I appreciate it because he wasn’t educated; he was the only son among many sisters in his family and, from a young age, he had to work.

I was a very shy boy with very little confidence. I never dared to draw in front of others. When I was 16 years old, my grandfather passed away. I didn’t have the chance to fulfill that promise I made to him while he was alive.

The last lesson he taught me is that “our loved ones cannot wait forever for us.”

Before 16, I drew a lot because drawing makes me happy. Since 16 until now (31), I draw to protect other children who cannot protect themselves.

Along the way, I’ve drawn with children and helped them by fundraising, gathering drawings for children survivors of disaster, inspiring confidence, or simply teaching kids how to draw so they can go out to draw and make others happy and fund-raise for other. This project is called “Little Draw”: little versions of me wearing red sweaters like I do, drawing to help others.

By right, the boy who can’t hold a pencil together properly can’t draw well, fast or big. But in October 2007, I drew the Guinness World Record largest caricature in front of a group of children from not so well-to-do families, to show them that anything is possible in life. No matter how you begin your life, it’s not about our scars, it’s all about our heart. The previous world record was 180 square meters done in three days. I drew 360 square meters in three hours. That’s the Jackie Chan portrait.

By right, the boy who was kicked of an art lesson can’t teach an art lesson. In October 2010, I taught the Guinness World Records largest art lesson (33 locations around the world) to a group of children invited from orphanages or children’s homes and a mix of other children from well-to-do families, so no one knows which kids are from which group. One of the locations was from in the United States, and it’s cute because the US kids came to the art lesson in pajamas. I went to the toilet to cry after the world record. I felt really emotional when I reflected on the past.

Then last year, October 2014, I did my 3rd and 4th Guinness World Record for the world’s longest drawing by a group and the world’s longest drawing by an individual. We had children and senior citizens coming together to do something amazing, that they otherwise couldn’t do it alone, to instill self-belief in the kids.

When I was 23, Junior Chamber International named me one of the Outstanding Young Persons of Singapore for contributions to children, world peace and human rights. Reader’s Digest Asia featured me as the “Everyday Hero” and profiled the way I hold my pencil, drawing to protect children.

The second promise that changed my life

In 2008, I was invited by the ASEAN Government to travel around 10 ASEAN countries to draw with children and gathered over 10,000 drawings of what made children happy. Lesson: It’s the simple things in life that made us happy.

In 2011, I gathered drawings from past survivors of tsunamis/earthquakes to draw pictures of encouragement to children in the Fukushima and Iwate prefectures. I visited China, Indonesia, Taiwan and Costa Rica.

In Costa Rica (Alajuela, Poasito), I met a little girl who felt her life was empty and started crying, saying she can’t help the children in Kapan with her drawing. I asked her why and she said home became an empty place (location) and birthdays became an empty date (time). I didn’t know how to make her feel otherwise.

So I made her a promise.

“One day, I will show you a world that’s not empty; a world where our loved one’s memories don’t have to go away even if our loved ones go away.”

That promise became today’s Present. And every Present video you take is a promise that you’ll be there for those close to you.

Someday, I hope to be able to tell my future children and grandchildren my life story: a story about a little boy who was timid, had little confidence and was told he couldn’t draw or hold a pencil properly. But thanks to a grandfather’s love and a lot of hard work, he went on to make the world a slightly better place. And best of all, this story won’t be a made-up one.