Demons drag themselves along the floor of my brain. It has been a life-long struggle to get them out. Or at least to quiet them down so that I can think clearly. To hush the demons, I think of all I’m grateful for. I’m grateful for so much in my life and I really have few regrets. However, there is this one….this is my biggest regret.
When I was 18, I left rural Appalachia for the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. I took painting, photography, graphic design, art history, etc. But it was the little man with the thick accent who taught life drawing that I will never forget. He rode a bicycle with a giant wire basket to the school everyday. The art school had an old elevator which was operated at all times by an elevator operator. When the smiley little man merrily rolled the bike onto the old elevator, students jumped out of his way and plastered themselves against the walls with their portfolios.
In his life drawing class, he didn’t allow any of us to use pencils. We had to draw live models with pens. I learned one of the most valuable lessons of my life with this exercise, “use the mistake.” You had to incorporate whatever mistakes you made into your drawing, no erasing, it’s part of your work. He was larger than life and took up all the oxygen in the room. He scared me to death. But I made it through his class.
A year later, I was walking down the hall toward the elevator, and the man with the bicycle stopped me. I had lost 80 pounds since being in his class, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t recognize me. He grabbed my arm and said, “You must pose for me.” All this took me back. First, I was bitter that he asked me to pose after becoming thinner. Second, he still scared me. He continued, “You must come to my studio.”
“How do you want to paint me?”
“I want you nude except I want you to wear a Nazi hat and coat.”
He looked at me with happy European wonderment. The reasons why I should’ t do this washed over me, but even then I didn’t believe any of them: “I’m scared to go to his house,” “What would people think of me wearing a Nazi uniform?” “My mother would disown me if I posed nude.” The truth was I had so much shame around my body, I couldn’t do it, even after losing 80 pounds and being in the best shape of my life.
“I can’t do it,” I said.
His eyes were still shining, “Why?”
“Because I’m embarrassed.” He looked as though I had punched him in the stomach. He said, “Think how embarrassing it is for me to ask you.”
He walked on down the hall through the crowd. That was it. I blew it.
The little man with the accent was Henry Koerner. Born to Jewish parents in Austria, he fled to the United States following Hilter’s annexation of Austria in 1938. He painted several portrait covers for Time magazine. He refused to work from photographs, so his subjects sat for him for many hours usually during the most eventful times of their lives. His subjects included John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Barabra Streisand, Paul Getty and Maria Callas. These people all sat for Henry. But I said no.
I said no! JFK and RFK said yes. I SAID NO!
I said no because I was “fat,” completely blinded by low self-esteem. Not only did I miss out on being in the portrait, but worse, I am left with a big black hole of regret. I will take Henry’s lesson to heart, “use the mistake.” I’m working to turn any black hole regret into something useful. Now, instead of beating myself up over not being the nude nazi, I use the incident to remind me not to miss opportunities, even if they put me in an awkward or scary position. You can’t take the past back, but you can dissolve regret.