Image by Brooke Bourgeois

Fiction Maud

Noor Qasim

What I really want to talk about is the work. 

Of course. 

If we have to talk about something, it might as well be the work. 

Well, we don’t have to talk about anything. 

But you’d like to, right? So you have something to write about. 

I’m open to discussing anything that interests you. 

Okay. I don’t know. It’s just been a lot. I’d just like — I mean, we talked about this on the phone. But I’d prefer we stay focused on my professional life. 

I understand. 

Anything else, I don’t know. It’s not really your business.

I get that.

Is that an alarm? 


The chirping. Is that a smoke detector or something? 

That’s just Inez. My bird. She’s in the kitchen. 

Oh, really? We used to have a parrot. 

She’s a cockatiel. My sister had her, but then she got a cat. 

Ah. Well, why don’t we start with the show. This was a big one for you — your first with a major gallery. How are you feeling? 

Good, I think. Good. What did you think? 

I enjoyed it immensely. I wouldn’t usually say that — but I already told you. The way you’re working with oils, it’s really quite distinctive. 

Thank you. That’s nice to hear. I was a little worried about going so big. Bigger gallery, bigger canvases. It was like I took this leap, from those small, little still lifes into these grand figural pieces, on this grand stage. 

But it seems to be working for you. The critical response has been —

Yes, I’m really grateful. 

It’s bold to present figures like these, on this sort of scale. “Maud,” in particular. That massive canvas of the girl with a frog down her throat. I loved it. I meant what I said on the phone. 

Thanks, yeah. 

Could you speak more about this shift in your work? Navigating this new step in your career. 

Well, the switch to figures was a big one. I hadn’t expected it to be, really, because I always felt, even in school, like there wasn’t much difference between painting a bowl of fruit and painting a face. People just get tripped up because they get so absorbed by the person behind the body, but I’ve never really had that issue. I’m generally good at seeing the surface first, then working my way in. 

Which was really why I started on the new series in the first place. I think I was feeling a little bored with all the daisies and the baby’s breath and the way they were being covered. And I knew I was lucky, at that age, at such an early stage, to get any coverage at all. But I could tell people wouldn’t really take me seriously until I found a different subject. And of course, I’d never go full-blown abstraction. That’s just not the kind of painter I am.

Instead you landed in this surreal territory. 

Yeah, I started by trying out these portraits of friends, or people I met at parties. But I always ended up twisting them in some way. I kept wanting to push real faces into this heightened dimension. 

Is that how you started on “Maud”? 

No, actually. That one’s funny. It’s based on a poem. 


Yeah, it’s, like, this poem my dad would read to us growing up. Kind of weird, in hindsight, but it’s always stuck with me. I can’t remember the title, but it’s by Galway Kinnell. 

Wonderful poet. 

Oh? I wish I could remember what it’s called. But it’s about this dinner party, I think. And there are these children. A boy and a girl with these old fashioned names. Maud and Fergus. 

His children. 

Oh, I didn’t know that. Well, it’s the one where they show up naked in this doorway, draped in, like, garter snakes. And you can just sense that something is wrong. The nudity of the children, the sensuality of the snakes. It’s like sin in the air. And then Maud, she pulls open the jaw of one of the snakes to show the speaker —

Her father

Yes, or some other adult, and inside a frog is being swallowed. But when he tries to save it, she says: “Don’t. Frog is already elsewhere.” 


It’s wild. Do you know that one? 

I’m not sure. It sounds familiar. 

I wouldn’t have connected your work with Kinnell, but I see it now. I love his writing, and “Maud” was actually the first piece of yours I saw. I think I came across it on your Instagram. 


But, I mean, it was even more impressive in person. This giant girl, shining in this deep, dark pool. I was so moved by the artistry. It meant a lot to me. 

Well, thank you. I’m glad it resonated. But, like, that’s also been a part of all this. Navigating other people’s opinions. Mediating these external voices —

By external voices, you mean —

I don’t know, people like you. The press. Professors. Mentors, you know. The comparisons. It’s been a whole thing, sifting through those. Because of course, like, on some level, it’s always flattering to be compared to someone famous. To someone very successful. But it also makes it harder, I think, to see your work clearly after those connections are drawn. 

I had this whole period last summer where I completely lost track of my sensibility. It was around the time I signed with the new gallery, which was this great moment. A great success. But then I think I was so bogged down by these lofty comparisons — I got this one artist just, like, lodged in my head. I think subconsciously I was trying to be like him. And I won’t tell you who, that’s not the point. But, I mean, I was working the whole summer on this piece. Just couldn’t get it right. Every day, just trying and failing to finish it. 

And then this one night, I was working really late, and I let myself step away for a second. I drank a couple glasses of wine, and I was just, like, scrolling on TikTok and I came across this clip of, like, a lynx in some woman’s home, eating a whole raw chicken off a paper plate. But it wasn’t brutal at all. You’d expect it to be brutal, but it was, like, weirdly polite. He was just gnawing at this drumstick, shaking it every once in a while to get the meat into his mouth. It was visceral, yeah, but it wasn’t really violent. And this woman had almost a hundred videos of this big cat, trapped in this beautiful suburban kitchen, feeding itself. 

When I came back to the painting, it was like I could finally see it clearly. I’d been working for months, entirely in someone else’s style. You know that triplet scene? I’d painted this massive, hyperrealistic ribbon of blood to sort of be trailing behind them. But it didn’t need the blood at all. It didn’t need to be that extreme, you know? It wasn’t me. 

Do you need to get that? 

No, it’s alright, thanks. They’ll call back if it’s urgent. 

Okay. Yeah, I think it’s all just been a process. 

And how would you describe your sensibility now? 

I mean, I’ve always been interested in roundness. I think that’s a throughline from the earlier work to this most recent show. There’s something about the roundness of vases, the roundness of bodies, that suggests all this potential energy. The surface is stretched taut, like a balloon about to pop. That’s what got me started with “Fat Pig.” 

How did that piece come about? 

It’s funny, actually. It was one of my first figural pieces, although I didn’t think of it that way then. I was living in Nolita. I’d just quit my assistant job and was hoping that I could sell enough of the flower pieces to just paint for a few months, along with some help from my parents. I’d wanted time to work, but it made me so anxious, I barely slept. I’d wake up really early, and I couldn’t stand sitting alone in my tiny place, wondering when inspiration would strike. So I’d get out and walk around Little Italy. It was always so quiet in the morning, except for the rumbling trucks, men shouting, restocking all the butchers and the restaurants. 

There was this one truck, from a supplier in Jersey. On its side it had this giant bubblegum-pink pig, stretched out like a pinup. Its little tongue was sticking out and it was wearing this tiny white t-shirt with “EAT ME” in green writing. The poor pig was bursting out of this shirt, and there was something about it that was just, like, charged. The image was so full — sexual and demeaning and so palpably round

I really wanted to capture that bluntness, the erotic cruelty of it, so one morning I took, like, a million pictures of the truck, and that night I started sketching, turning the pig into a girl, the girl into a pig, back and forth until I found something. Someone exactly in between pig and girl with “eat me” carved into her chest.

It’s an incredibly unnerving image

That’s what I’m going for. I mean I’m not trying to be unnerving, but I’m always aiming for the uncanny. How can I take this image, or this person, that feels familiar, and shift it just slightly to make you look more closely. 

Like with “Crybaby.” 

Yes, exactly. It should take a second to realize there’s no water coming from the showerhead or the faucet. That the pool at her feet must have come from her, although she doesn’t appear to be crying. It’s a delicate balance — don’t you need to get that? 

Please, what were you —

Really, I don’t mind. 


What’s up? 

I can’t come. I’m working. 

Is he sick? Does he have a fever? 

Maria vouched for you. You said you’d be able to handle a few hours solo. 

He’s just saying that for attention. 

I’m telling you, it’s fine. Make some hot cocoa. Leave it on the counter. He’ll walk back down in his own time. I have to go. 

What’s wrong? 

My son — it’s alright. Sorry about that. 

That’s okay. I don’t mind. You’re sure he’s fine? 

Yes, yeah. Sorry for the interruption.

Were you, um — were you always interested in the uncanny?

I think so, yeah. As a little kid, I had this sense that, like, something was wrong with me. Something deeply and profoundly wrong. And I know tons of people feel that way, and as you grow up you come to see, like, “Oh, I wasn’t the problem, necessarily.” Like, the world can be stifling, even for — I don’t know. For someone like me. But once you have had that belief or that feeling, it always kind of lingers in the background, although you might come to understand it better. 

I mean, even within my family I could feel that way, and I was always loved and cared for. We often went camping, just my parents, my sister, and me. We’d go fishing, out on a small lake, us girls waddling around in these bright red life jackets. Two little blondes in red, a white boat, the green-blue of the water — I can find you a photo. It was all very idyllic.

Usually, we’d just throw the fish back, but my mom would complain. She thought it would be better to eat the fish, instead of just torturing them. 

So on this one trip, when I caught a trout, my dad told me not to throw it back. We got to shore and my sister and I watched as he sliced the fish open, all this blood oozing out of its belly. He cracked the jaw, stuck his hand into its guts, ripping them out, then tossed them straight into the woods. My sister squealed and she started laughing so hard, but for some reason I felt very calm. My dad set the fish back down on the tarp, and it looked just like it had with all of its organs. Nearly the same, except for this thin, red line at the base of its belly. 

I think about that fish a lot. It feels ridiculous — I mean, it really is ridiculous to say, and maybe, I don’t know, I feel obligated to give you something. Some nice little story, to sum me up or something. But, like, I’ve often felt that way. A person can be gutted and no one will notice. 

It’s interesting you raise this. Because I think a lot of the questions, a lot of the interest in your personal life, has to do with this concern — with not wanting to miss, maybe, if there’s something going on beneath the surface that we can’t quite see. 

Really? I think people are just pervs. Curious pervs. 

You’re probably right. And a lot of the commentary, to be sure, has been pretty blatantly sexist. But I do think it’s — I mean, you were speaking earlier about the difficulty of navigating influence. And I think it’s a real question for young artists of any gender, new to the art world — of how to discern who to trust. 

But you wouldn’t be asking me that if I weren’t a woman. Or if I didn’t look the way I do. All this “concern,” honestly it’s just patronizing. I’m talking about my artistic challenges, about learning to trust my intuition with a canvas. But that doesn’t mean I, like, take candy from strangers. 

And honestly, like, I think it’s a real loss when mentorship or protection — even if that sounds icky, protection is often what young artists really need — isn’t offered to young women because there’s this fear of looking like a predator or having your intentions misinterpreted. I mean, that’s fucked up, too. That neglect. And — I think this is really important — I have power, too. And not just privilege, or whatever. I have my own power, real power, as an artist. And I use it in all kinds of fucked-up ways. Like, I’m not a saint, like, that’s evident in my work. And these girls — they’re my objects. It’s cruel to place them on a razor’s edge all the time. Like with “Showpony,” the pigtailed girl impaled with a carousel pole. I’ve made life very difficult for her. I wield power over her in a more total way than anyone has ever held power over me. 

But they’re not in real danger. 

And I am?

Maybe not danger. But, let’s be honest — you’re in a relationship with the man representing you. A very powerful, influential man, nearly thirty years your senior. That can’t be simple. 

It’s not simple. I never said it was! But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It doesn’t mean I’m being hurt, and it also doesn’t mean I’m, like, a whore, either. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Sex work. But that’s not what I’m doing. 

Nevertheless, since you signed with him, you’ve experienced a real boost. Your prices at auction have skyrocketed. 

But it’s not like I see any of that money. It’s not like I’m “selling out,” or some bullshit. Like, we all have, none of us have. I don’t know. 

But isn’t there also the question of his ethics? His assets, his investments in various, somewhat questionable regimes, a certain willingness to work with perhaps less-than-angelic characters —

And? He’s a businessman. Businessmen do all sorts of shit. That’s what they do. It doesn’t mean I — I don’t condone anything. It’s just — I’m my own person. It’s fucked up to suggest I’m not. It’s actually pretty deeply sexist. We’re separate people.

Honestly, Jesus Christ. I said I didn’t want to talk about this. 

I’m not trying to —

It’s hard, though, isn’t it? This whole thing. Because obviously I want you to write that I’m very charming. That I’m an open book. Or we can pretend I say revealing things despite myself. But it’s clear you want things from me that I don’t want to give. 


Like, what do you want me to say? What do you want to know? You think we, like, chitchat about war crimes? I do like fucking him, if that helps. He’s old, but he’s good in bed. I don’t call him Daddy or anything like that. Is that what you want to know? Or maybe I should say that every night, without fail, he puts on way too much La Mer. That he has these incredibly soft hands. I mean what level of detail do you think would be sufficient? 

I’m really not trying to this isn’t personal. It’s my responsibility, as a journalist, to ask. 

But that’s bullshit though, right? Of course you’re interested.

I’m sorry, I just — she keeps calling. 

Take it, whatever. 

Let me just

What’s up? 

I really need you to get a handle on —

What’s wrong? 

My son. Everything’s fine. He can be a lot. 

Please, please don’t go. I’ll make it up to you — I’m in the middle of a very important — No! Really, please, I can’t just —

He can come here, if that helps. 


No problem. Love kids. Really.

Are you sure?

Yes, I’m sure.

Thank you so much, that’s actually really so — we live in the neighborhood, so this really helps, thank you. 

I’m just a few blocks away, you can drop him with me. I’ll text you the address. 

I am so sorry. This is so unprofessional. I wouldn’t usually —

Is he okay? 

He’s fine. 

How old is he? 


Yeah, so, um — I really don’t want you to think I’m trying to sniff out anything salacious. I so admire your work, and I just feel obligated to —

What’s wrong with him? 


With your son? I mean, like, why is she freaking out? 

There’s nothing wrong with him.

I mean, there’s maybe something a little off, but we don’t know what, exactly. They say it’s not developmental, but he’ll have these really bad tantrums. I have an older daughter and she had tantrums. But these aren’t like that. He doesn’t get loud or upset. He just gets very quiet. I can handle him. But it can be unsettling for other people when they first meet him. 

I feel like eight is such a hard age. You’re just starting to see how scary the world is, but you still don’t quite understand it. You’re weirdly aware there are things you’re not being told. 

Yes, exactly. We’ve taken him to specialists and that’s kind of what they’re saying. That by acting out in this way, he’s grasping for control. So we try to find ways to give him more agency. We have him pack his lunch, put himself to bed, that sort of thing. He can only use his iPad for thirty minutes a day, but he gets to decide when those thirty minutes are. 

How is he acting out? 

We really don’t have to talk about this. We’re supposed to be discussing your work. 

It’s interesting. 

I don’t know that I’d call it interesting. But it’s hard for me to talk about, with people in my life. I don’t want them to be afraid of him, or think I’m this awful mother. 

He’ll threaten, sometimes. He does this thing where he’ll threaten to throw himself down the stairs. He’ll sit on the top step, all calm, his palms resting on his little knees. And he’ll say, “Mom, I’m going to do it.” And I’ll say, “No, Elliot. It will hurt. Please come down and sit with Mommy.” And he’ll say, “I mean it. I’m going to do it, and when I do, I’m going to break my neck.” And the therapist, she says not to engage with this directly, to try to address the feeling behind the statements, instead of engaging with the threat. And so I’ll say, “Are you feeling anxious, sweetheart? Let me give you a hug.”And sometimes that works, but a lot of times it doesn’t. At a certain point, I have to walk away. Sometimes hot chocolate helps. 

But not today? 

Not today. 

I think sometimes it can be hard for people to remember how difficult it was to be a kid. Like, I think by the time most people have had kids, by necessity, they’ve forgotten how it feels to be so powerless. But you’d know better than me, I guess. 

I think I know what you mean. After having his sister, I honestly felt invincible. I’d expected to be humbled by birth, and in a way I was. I was pushed down to that lowest, most animal part of myself. But then I just kept on living. And while I knew that pain, the humbling force of it, was still there — I could press on it when I wanted to, like a bruise — I was also finally a mother. I had waited so long for that title. Years of IVF. A lot of money. And when Elliot was conceived it was like this miracle. Natural conception, natural birth — all of it. He felt like this prize, for everything we’d gone through. 

That’s special

It was! It is. But with these threats looming in the air, it’s like all that power I felt has been degraded. He’s constantly forcing me to get down to his level. 

It’s funny — I first came across your paintings when all of this started. He began acting so strangely and it was just so distressing. I took some time off work. I was having trouble sleeping. And I guess when I saw “Maud” I was really so moved by it that I started having this recurring dream. I’m at my parents’ place, near the woods in Connecticut. It’s just stopped raining, and I’m walking through the grass to an old shed. When I open the door, Elliot is standing there. My son, but he’s an adult. He’s even older than I am now. And all he does is stand there, but somehow, I know he’s done it. To the girl. And the frog. 

Done what? 

Fed her the frog. Shoved it down her throat. 

That’s funny. I never imagined someone had done it to her. I think I thought she’d done it to herself. 


I don’t know. People do all sorts of things to themselves. 

Is she alright? 


Your bird. She keeps chirping. Is she hungry? 

She’s just talking. 

You know, it’s odd. “Maud” is one of his favorites, too, but I’m not sure I like it very much. 

Why is that? 

I’ve always been kind of embarrassed by it. 


Maybe, like, embarrassed for her, somehow. Like she’s done this strange thing to herself just to put it on display. Like she thinks it’s so interesting, you know? I can’t stand that. When people are like that. 

But I mean — if someone had done it to her? 

Well, didn’t you? 

What do you —

Like you said before, with “Showpony.” You’ve made the image. Aren’t you the one who’s put her on display?

Yes, technically. I mean, I guess that’s what I was saying. 

But that’s also — like, that’s not all of it. Not exactly. I don’t know. These pieces exist outside of myself. I can’t always determine how they come to me, or why, or how the image will end up. If I interrogate it too much, it kills the thing. Like, in the corner, over there, that stack of canvases. The one in the front.


I’d been working on that girl for a while. I love her face. The pale sheen of it. The craters in her cheeks. Like if the moon had acne scars, or something. I was so caught up in the piece, and it was moving quickly, until my mom visited. We’re just standing here, drinking coffee, and she goes, “Is that Janie?”  

That’s the buzzer? 

Yeah, they must be downstairs.

I can set him up with a book in the kitchen and we can keep talking


Your place really is gorgeous. These windows!

Thank you, yeah. It’s special. 

I’ll grab the door.

Hi honey! You doing okay?

You can go, we’ll talk later. Thanks for bringing him. 

Elliot, sweetie, this is Olivia. She’s an artist. 

Hi, Elliot. 

You’re feeling shy, love? 

We have cocoa in the kitchen, Elliot, if you’d like some. 

That’s sweet, Olivia, thank you. 

You can meet my birdy! Her name’s Inez. 

We’d love that, wouldn’t we, sweetheart? 

Actually, sorry — I need to take this. The kitchen’s just through there, and the cocoa’s in the cupboard to the left of the sink. 

Of course, yeah, thank you! Take your time! 

Hello? Hi baby. 

Oh! I completely forgot, thank you. Yeah, I’ll be there. Maybe a few minutes late, though, I’m wrapping this up. 

It’s been fine. Mostly respectful. A little unprofessional, some trouble with her kid. 

How’s the install? 

God, he’s just an asshole, isn’t he? I mean, of course he’s a genius. But I never would have imagined he’d act like this. After everything you’ve told me this month alone, I’m like —

She’s in the kitchen. I’m not an idiot, okay? 

Very funny. 

Okay, I’ll see you soon. Love you. 

Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt. 

Oh, you’re fine. We’re done. 

Okay, I think he should be good in there. He’s very happy with his cocoa, thank you. 


So sorry again about this. You were saying, about the girl?

Yeah, this girl Janie, she lived down the street. People — they weren’t very kind. She had, like, a rolly backpack and stuff. But it really does look just like her. She had this round face and these huge cheeks, just pitted with purple acne. I must have been thinking of her on some level, without realizing it. But when my mom pointed it out, that was just — it all became too obvious. There was no mystery anymore, nothing left to discover. 

Still, I love that piece. I want to try to finish it, at some point. I just love that face. It reminds me how I used to feel. I was so lonely all the time. And I don’t feel that as much anymore, or with the same sort of intensity.

It seems like you develop this really intimate, emotional understanding of your figures. They become very real to you, even when they’re not based on real people. 

You’re right, yeah. I really care about my girls. Even though they’re not, like, real. And even though, like I said before, I do all sorts of things to them. I have to respect them if I’m going to spend all that time with them, trying to get it right. Maybe that’s part of what I struggle with, with Maud. For some reason I find it kind of hard to respect her.

You know, I’m thinking back to that poem, the genesis for this piece, and, I’m sorry, I wish could recall the specific one you were thinking of —

That’s okay. It’s great that you even, like, know who I’m talking about, I don’t know. 

Well, thanks. But I mean, in many of Kinnell’s poems, he’s really thinking about both of the children. You know, the pair, both Maud and Fergus. And I guess I wonder when Fergus fell away, for you. Why the image, for you, was the girl and the frog, instead of, like, the boy and the snake. 

I don’t know. I mean, I was always going to be interested in the girl. That’s just what I like to paint. 

But did you imagine, in the poem, that Maud had fed the snake? Did you think she was responsible?

I don’t know. I’m not sure that’s really the question. 

I guess, if I’m being honest, some part of me feels like I’ve always been that girl. Like I’m trying to crack the world open, so we can see the half-living thing inside, the other animal inside us. 

Did you hear that? 

Hear what? 

That sound.

It’s just Inez. 

But she sounds — doesn’t she sound —

She gets like that. I’m sure she’s fine. 

But there’s —

Really, she’s fine. 

You know, sometimes I feel like people want to punish me for that impulse, or something. That urge to prod and provoke. It’s too much for them. But I guess I bring it on myself. By insisting, you know. By always looking, by seeing the truth, for wanting to show and —

What was that?

— tell. 

Oh no, he could’ve knocked something over.

Just go check on him. 


He’s not in there? 

No, he’s — Why is it so quiet?



Check the hall. 


The hall. The stairwell. Check the hall. 

I can’t. Your door —

It jams, let me.

It won’t — 

I think I —


— got it.

Oh, Olivia. 

What is it?

Oh my God. I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry —  

What happened?

Get out of the way. I can’t —  

I can’t believe — He’s never — I’m just so —

I can’t see if you’re in the way.

Noor Qasim is a writer living in Iowa City.