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Max Romey and the Art of Running

Max Romey talks about following in his grandmother’s artistic and adventurous footsteps, running in Alaska, and art as a time machine.

By on July 11, 2024 | Comments

Chances are good you’ve seen Max Romey’s watercolor paintings and animations pop up over the past few years.

As a runner and environmentalist, Max uses his art to capture the beauty and changing scenery of both his home in Alaska and of locations around the world. He’s currently working on a project to recreate some of the sketches that his grandmother made when she traveled the world, and noting how the landscapes have changed in the time that’s passed since then.  If you need some inspiration, want to learn to paint, or need some artwork for your walls, check out his website.

Without further ado, here is Max Romey.

Max Romey

Max Romey — artist, runner, father — always striving to embrace the process. All photos courtesy of Max Romey.

When did you start running and painting? What draws you to watercolor?

I think I started running and painting around the same time, which is before I can remember. I feel like most little kids kind of start those things intuitively, and usually naked, honestly, having a one-and-a-half-year-old myself. As soon as clothes are gone — Boom! — as fast as they can go. And then same with painting, although that’s more just for cleaning up the mess.

I’ve been painting and running for as long as I can remember. They’re two of the things that make me feel the most free. You’re just in the process, which is funny because later on in life, it became all about the results of those things, and that’s what made them feel more controlled. As soon as you forget the process, that’s when it feels like a job. When you’re just running or painting, you’re just in the moment with it.

Who has influenced your artwork the most? Any runners who inspire you?

I think the person who has probably influenced my artwork the most is my grandmother. She is — well, was — an unbelievable painter, really amazing adventurer, and had these sketchbooks that were … I remember flipping through them as a kid and almost being transported to these places she was. It was the coolest thing ever.

And her whole style, and painting, and lifestyle are something I’ve always been inspired by. She traveled all over the world, saw some amazing things, and sketched some of the wildest things on earth. It was always something I dreamed about — following in her footsteps.

Max Romey desert painting

Following in his grandmother’s footsteps, Romey is taking his paints all over the world.

The runners who inspire me the most aren’t necessarily the fastest anymore. When I was little, the runners who inspired me were whoever would chase me. Now that I’m older, I really appreciate the runners who do it for the places running can take you, not necessarily for the time or the record.

People like Rickey Gates, for example. Rickey is one of those runners where if there were no cameras or no stories written or if nobody knew about the stuff he did, I think he would still probably do it. I think that’s something I’d really love to emulate — just running for the sake of running.

I think painting and sketching are the same, where I just love the people and places watercolor has helped me [experience]. I do often get bogged down by making it for the sake of making a pretty picture.

Living in Alaska, how do the extremes affect your artwork and running?

Living in Alaska is kind of wild. It’s usually on the edge of everything, whether it’s extreme heat or extreme cold. Well, maybe not extreme heat — we hit the 70s or 80s Fahrenheit, and we all fall apart. But Alaska’s on the edge, whether it’s seasons, cold, or wildlife, which definitely plays a huge role for both running and painting.

For running, Alaska is a little bit of culture shock, or maybe lack thereof. There are a lot of bears, there’s a lot of big, big wildlife you do not want to run into by accident. But once you learn the rules and that you’re not really the top of the food chain, that changes your perspective.

I think I have a lot more respect for the outdoors and for the wilderness now that I do live somewhere like here, and especially now that I have a one-and-a-half-year-old. I think that has made me appreciate that you don’t have to find the biggest mountain or the most extreme run or paint the wildest, craziest thing to have a really good time.

Max Romey painting in kayak

Romey’s paint set come everywhere.

There’s always something bigger, more intense than you out here in Alaksa, whether it’s a mountain, a bear, or a moose, and I think that takes the pressure off pushing it to your limit. Being out and part of this whole big picture is worth it. And when it comes to painting, that’s the same deal here. There’s not one pretty viewpoint — it’s 360 degrees of incredible. I think that this environment has helped me see that I’m just one piece of the big picture, and I’ve learned to love that.

Trying to do any of this stuff in Alaska brings a whole new set of challenges. Like running, painting is a whole different experience. In order to do watercolor out here, you have to do all these tricks, like putting gin in the paint water because normal water would freeze. Usually, I freeze long before my paint does.

Tell us about your project to find the landscapes from your grandmother’s art and repaint them. What has changed, or not?

My grandmother’s been gone for over a decade now, and she left behind over 6,000 sketches from all over the world. We’re talking Alaska, Cape Cod, Argentina, Antarctica, the Galapagos. When I was going through all of these sketches, I realized that I could go to the same places. It’s like a language we shared — if you can read these sketchbooks, you can actually go to the exact same places she was.

So I’ve been using her sketchbooks almost like a reverse map where I try to find exactly where she was standing. And I stand in the same place, use the same materials to sketch the same view, and see what’s changed. It’s neat because the sketchbook will only line up in one place. That has been a really wild experience. I’m already seeing some huge changes in the 40 or 50 years since the sketchbooks have been returned to these places.

Max Romey painting in snow

Romey has been painting, and running, since before he can remember.

Sometimes, when I bring a sketchbook back, it feels like nothing has changed at all. When I was sketching the Aiguille du Midi [a mountain in the Alps], everything looked exactly the same, even the birds.

Sometimes though, everything has changed. Like the Mer de Glace [a glacier in the Alps] —  she had sketched this four decades ago, but it had changed entirely. The glacier had gone down, and I spent two days trying to find where she stood. I ended up hiking way high up a trail and nothing was lining up, and eventually I sat down to give up, and when I held it up, the mountains lined up, the trees lined up, the bushes lined up, but the glacier just wasn’t there. To be able to see that kind of change on a sheet of paper was really striking.

I feel like there are so many big huge things going on all the time, and I can’t really wrap my head around them until I sketch them out, and that was one that really knocked me on my butt. It was just such a huge change to see a mountain of ice like that just gone, and now that I have a kid of my own, thinking about how the mountains that I sketch will change in 40 or 50 years really gives me a little bit of pause. It makes me excited to paint them forward.

Why is art, running, and being outside important?

Art is only as important as you want to make it. It’s not like we need art to capture pictures. Your phone will capture immediate, scientific, perfectly accurate photos. But I think the role art plays is that it captures how we feel.

I don’t paint a photocopy. I’m able to paint how I feel. Art helps us connect to these big-picture things.

Without art in a time of change like this, I think it would be a lot more scary and a lot more hopeless. But I think we have this incredible human ability to feel and see and put a mark on a sheet of paper, to become like a time machine or magnifying glass. Art, to me, has opened up this world, and I would feel so lost without it.

Max Romey with art in snow

Painting in Alaska brings along its own unique set of challenges.

What people should know is that art doesn’t have to be any one thing to everybody. Just how running is more than just a race, a time, or a record, art can be something entirely different to every single person. Just because you don’t win a race or paint the perfect picture, or whatever standards we hold ourselves to, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have a great time doing it.

I think that would be my advice to people: Don’t worry about the final product. Just remember what it was like when you were a little kid — that freedom to run around the house or draw a picture. It doesn’t matter what you come up with as long as you’re having fun doing it. No matter what happens in the future, if we have art and we have each other, we’re going to be okay.

What would you say to someone looking to start painting?

  1. Start small. It’s a lot harder to make a really big painting.
  2. Waste 10 sheets of paper before you really judge yourself. Don’t worry about it.
  3. Use art supplies that you’ll bring with you anywhere. For me, it’s these watercolor kits that my grandma first gave me. Whether I’m running or traveling, I always have one with me.

If you could be a tree, what kind of tree would you be? And why?

I’d like to think I’d be one of those oak trees with those knobbly branches, like a really good climbing tree that offers a good view from the top.

Call for Comments

  • Have you ever incorporated watercolor stops into your runs?
  • Does art make the world a less scary place for you?
Max Romey night painting

According to Romey, “No matter what happens in the future, if we have art and we have each other, we’re going to be okay.”

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Hannah Green
Hannah Green wanders long distances by foot and takes photos along the way. When not outside, you can likely find her at the nearby coffee shop. Find more on Instagram and at Hannah Green Art.