Peter Ziou is nothing short of a celebrity on Hopkins campus.
Students may know him as an advisor, a Junior School Studio Arts teacher, an Upper School Fine Arts teacher, or just someone who is always cheerful and happy to chat. During his 28 years teaching at Hopkins, Ziou has instilled a love of art in both hesitant and eager students that lasts far beyond The Hill. His classroom is a comfortable place to explore and take risks through watercolor, collage, pencil sketches, and countless other mediums. Everyone has a “Mr. Ziou story”, from the time he went up in front of the whole school to Capoeira dance during Assembly, to the time he hijacked the walkie talkie system during Back to School Bash to talk about the sunset. His lessons highlight the intersection of art and spirituality, giving students a new lens through which to view creativity.
Q: What made you want to become a teacher?
Let me start by saying that becoming anything is not something that you know you’re going to become. I would probably venture to say that in many cases, people who become or do something they end up loving do not know they’re going to do that. I know at Hopkins, the students either have goals early on in their lives, or their parents have goals for them. That doesn’t always work out, and it puts the student in a bind, psychologically, because they might think they’ve failed at something that should have happened in their course of life. But the surprises and unexpected experiences in our lives are what gives us, hopefully, more motivation than fear about what we’re good at. And what we’re good at, we don’t necessarily know. I know as a little immigrant Greek kid from an island in the Mediterranean Sea, that when I came to the United States and I was a public school student in Bridgeport, I didn’t know this country and the way it worked. I couldn’t speak the language. And it was a teacher, like Ms. Macintosh, (I was sort of called her teacher’s pet by the class, but I loved her) who would keep me after school, and help me with English. Other teachers, such as Ms. Forester, in high school freshman year, would always keep me after school, and she was very adamant in trying to tell me good things about what direction to go in. Ms. Flannigan, who was tough to the class, she was feared by the wise guys, but loved by the good students. So, when I got a chance at Yale [where Ziou studied painting] to be a TA for one of my professors, and after the students received my lesson positively, I realized that sharing something I loved with other people, in this case art, gave me this feeling inside that I didn’t know was possible. But first, I wanted to become a better artist, because I love creating, drawing, and painting. I had to love what I do, before I could teach what I do. If I only go to school to become a teacher, if I don’t really love what I do, then I can’t teach it. My life made me become a teacher, rather than I decided to become a teacher.
Q: What is one memorable experience you have had while teaching at Hopkins?
That’s a tough one because I love my students so much! I mean, just this week, I did a lecture on utilizing the ellipse and the cube while drawing three apples, and talking about the interspace between the apples, and the overlap. A 7th grader showed me her drawing, and it was better than my example! And that to me was a surprise, but a beautiful surprise. And, what it is, is a student, through whatever inspiration they’ve gotten into themselves, that nobody can put in there, not parents or teachers, only the student’s spirit puts it in. And they didn’t even know how good of a job they did, but they felt it.
Q: What projects are you working on at the moment?
These days, I would probably say, I think it’s the nature of COVID, I’ve been less focused on my personal art and putting more concentration on coming in every day and teaching the best lesson I can for virtual and in-person students. But, I think that this is also the time of self-reflection, and we can all become spiritually motivated if we allow ourselves to, by our isolation. Recently, I’ve been doing little washes of landscapes. Part of it is a goal I set for myself: when the school allowed me to go see the national parks in the southwest [during Ziou’s sabbatical from the end of January to the fall term of 2020], like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, I took pictures and did some little drawing studies, and I’ve been doing little paintings off them. I’ve also been doing little paintings of New England. During COVID, the best and safest thing for me to do when I have the time is to go somewhere and hike, take pictures and draw, then come back to the studio and try to make a painting out of them. But I have to do it soon afterwards, because if I wait too long I lose the actual moment of time, which is what I search for, where your spirit is connected to the image in front of you, and allows you to find something beautiful.