To look at Sarah Maxwell’s slightly NSFW work is to get a window into what it’s like to be a 20-something queer artist living and working in Paris. The work itself is a series of at-times sensual, other-times humorous illustrations, prints and comic strip-style art that blends various textures and soft color palettes that subtly evoke '80s electronic music, youth culture and nostalgia.
Originally from Austin, Texas, Maxwell always loved fashion, enough to study it as an art form in school. Interestingly enough, Maxwell wasn’t really encouraged to pursue fashion illustration as her artistic medium, though a glance at her work proves that style is innately part of what makes her work compelling. So, Maxwell did what many venture to do but few try, and listened fully to her heart.
Maxwell’s reservations while in art school in Florida became cosmic life shifts, when she started dating a girl who spoke fluent French. With a nudge from her girlfriend, Maxwell soon realized that being in Paris would mean that she would be surrounded by what inspires her most: beauty, intimacy, playfulness, and the pain and pleasure of living as a queer young adult in a modern, ever-changing world.
OUT recently caught up with Maxwell to discuss queer life in Paris, her various inspirations and the importance of making art for herself and her community.
OUT: What drove you to Paris?
Sarah Maxwell: I had two reasons of first coming to Paris. I was studying at an art university in Florida, and wanted to transfer to a more fashion-oriented place. My girlfriend at the time was fluent in french, and wanted to study at a university in Paris. She was the one who proposed the idea, and as crazy as it sounded, I applied on a whim to a college here and got in basically with a full scholarship. It was cheaper to study in Paris than anywhere in the US. I didn’t think it was really possible to do something like this at the time, but I’ve been here 4 years now and have loved every minute of it.
What colors, sounds and experiences there have you drawn the most inspiration from?
Paris really is a beautiful place. I can get inspiration from any part of it, but most of the time it’s just little things and experiences I’ve had here. It’s a completely different life here than what I grew up with in Texas. How you dress, how you act, the language and slang, the music, the culture... everything. This city is really accessible, and it's great for finding inspiration. Often if I’m in need of it, all I have to do is bike, walk around or go to a museum. There’s always new things to take in that are exciting. Just the other day, I went to a Balenciaga expo at Musée Bourdelle, where they focused on the color black and paired the garments with sculptures done by Antoine Bourdelle. It was beautiful, every part—from the curating, to the clothes, to the space itself. It’s amazing to be immersed in such an atmosphere, you leave feeling really energized. It makes you want to be a part of something like that—of creating something beautiful. That’s what I’ve been hoping to achieve in wanting to pursue a career in the fashion industry. It can be difficult sometimes, not going to lie, but it makes you work a lot harder and push the desire to do better.
The comedic actor Danny Kaye once said, "To travel is to take a journey into yourself." How true does that statement ring for you?
I would say it's 100 percent true. I’m a completely different person than who I was before, being from America and living in Texas. I’m so grateful I had this opportunity, because I don’t know how different I would be. Being in Paris gets you exposed to other cultures. I have all international friends here, and getting to know their way of life—even if it's small details—is fascinating. You become more open minded; your eyes just open to more possibilities. I think people get comfortable in life and don’t think certain things are possible- therefore, they don’t try.
Having lived in Paris the last 4 years taught me so much, especially during a time when I’m figuring out who I am. I feel like I can say in a way I’ve grown up here, at least as a young adult. It taught me to try new things and not give up, because most of the times I was figuring stuff out by myself (and in another language). It’s strange sometimes because I find that I’m in this limbo of being “European” and “American." It’s made me think a lot about how different I’ve become now that have two “homes." It’s made me way more independent than I ever could’ve been (if I had continued to stay in Texas), and for that I’m really grateful.
There is something very lyrical about your work. Do you have musical inspirations in your work? If so, what songs have "soundtracked" recent pieces?
Yes, music is very much tied into my work. Most of the time, I’ll come across some lyrics that just stick to me—remind me of things, and instantly I get images that I want to put down on paper. Simple words and lyrics to me can do wonders. Even if its just an instrumental piece- there’s sometimes just a particular emotion or feeling you get that I can’t describe, but only through a drawing. There’s songs that remind me of falling in love, ones that remind me of a memory or a person. Here’s a few that get my head spinning:
"Cigarettes & Loneliness" by Chet Faker
"Down On You" by Dems (Hannes Fischer Remix)
"Postcards From 1952" by Explosions In The Sky
What is the message you hope to send out to the world with your work?
For me, it’s really down to personal things. Growing up, I was really frustrated in the lack of representation of the gay community, especially for lesbians. It’s funny but it’s a common thing among my friends that growing up we really looked hard for anything lesbian that we could possibly relate to, even if it was small subtext. I always wished and hoped that someone would be the one to change that, to be progressive and put our voices out there. It just didn’t occur to me that I could help in this, until about a year or so. My head was really into other things in school, and I had a bit of a blockage because of it. I didn’t really do personal things anymore—nothing for myself. It wasn’t until I graduated and started doing art for purely myself that I realized I could provide a voice and support for the community. At first it didn’t occur to me, I was mainly just getting out emotions that I kept inside, things left unsaid. I’ve never been good with voicing my feelings, I’m such shit with words sometimes that I’d rather draw something to get my point across. It’s just kind of funny and a little embarrassing at times to have my inner thoughts projected to such a scale. In doing that, it made me feel really good—I liked what I made, the frustration [was] gone, so I continued on. I’ve gotten so much feedback from it, I’ve just decided to roll with it while I’m still experimenting around with other things. I’m really happy my work has been reaching a larger audience, because I really hope that the LGBTQ community can be normalized in the media. Love is something everyone can relate to, regardless of gender. In this time, especially, with a lot at stake, I think it’s important to remember that.
Can you speak to queer life in Paris and how it relates to your work?
It’s a tough question. The lesbian community here isn’t so large and active, but there’s groups and people that are trying to change that. Even though Paris is seen as a very open-minded city, it still can be quite closed off and private. I think it’s also particularly true for internationals here, as well. It takes a while to break in. It’s something I want to be a part of, and slowly as my work is getting more noticed, I’ve been getting closer to that goal. I’d really love to be a part of helping the community grow, providing support in any way I could through my art. Experiencing the queer life in Paris is really interesting, though. You meet so many people from all over and you can take a lot away from it. Sometimes I think my life and work go hand-in-hand. They complement each other. My life has definitely been a huge impact on my work, and it has given me a lot of individuality and uniqueness that helps my audience grow, especially since I’m on an international scale living in Paris.