Jacques and Mary Regat’s three-panel depiction of the life of Saint Anthony, which hangs in the Anchorage church that bears his name, is a large, intricate bas-relief wood carving, one of thousands of works of art created by the renowned artist couple. Their multi-media works are exhibited across Alaska, around the world, and in private homes. The bronze statue in downtown Anchorage of Balto, the hero dog of the diphtheria serum run which gave birth to the Iditarod sled dog race, is perhaps their best-known piece among Alaskans and the state’s many visitors.
Musicians and storytellers as well, the Regats are longtime parishioners of the eastside parish, having been in Anchorage since the early 1970s. Jacques hails from a family of accomplished artists in Paris. He began carving at age six and came to Alaska at a relative’s invitation. He spoke no English. Mary, from a farm in northern Minnesota, and early drawn to artistic pursuits, began her Alaskan adventure in Prince of Wales Island, where she carved a 20-foot canoe and created diverse artworks.
Their paths crossed on a neighborhood sidewalk, where Jacques was working on an 18-foot totem pole as part of his study at the University of Alaska and Native Welcome Center. That meeting has borne tremendous fruit through 46 years of marriage.
To speed the completion of Jacques’ bachelor’s degree, the young couple departed on a sometimes ill fated, sometimes dangerous, adventure through Central and South America, where they studied Mayan Toltec art. It earned Jacques the necessary credits, and the distinction of being the first student to obtain a fine arts degree from UAA. Together, they studied art there, as well as European art in France. The Regats were invited by Pope Saint John Paul II to participate in the Jubilee 2000 celebration honoring artists at the Vatican in Rome.
Early in their marriage they knew they could make a living off their art, which expanded from jointly carved wood pieces to stone, bronze and painting. Their collaboration succeeds, because, as Mary said, “We live and breathe our art. Where one person ends, the other begins. After awhile, you discover you have this magical box of tools. You are a muse for the other person.”
As their website (regatstudio.com) attests: “[They] unite their talents in the creation of their work. Their art is a bold statement of their inner feelings, of their deep ties to the land of Alaska, its people, history, legends and the greatness of its rugged wilderness.”
Working together can sometimes be brutal, the couple agreed.
“[I] would put [my] name on that stone and she would carve something out of it,” Jacques said. From a stone once broken in a moment of frustration, came inspiration for yet another work of art, Jacques recalled.
Their foray into sacred art came by way of music. Jacques recalled, “We got hijacked.” Attending a wedding at St. Anthony Church, the choir director noted Mary’s delightful singing voice. They soon joined the folk group choir and Jacques eventually took up playing guitar. Aware of their artistic accomplishments, then pastor, Monsignor Francis Cowgill, commissioned the pair to create the parish’s dominant artistic features, the massive triptych, and later, wood sculptures of Saint Joseph and Saint Francis of Assisi.
Those works follow an iconographic tradition of telling stories through the many images wrought of the wood. Familiarity with their subjects extends beyond skill, to scholarship, and knowledge of religious symbolism and the transcendent nature and value of art.
Seeing little distinction between sacred and secular art, Jacques affirms that “all art is sacred.” Mary quickly added, “You have to be linked into the world of spirit.” Evoking art from raw material, Mary said, “the stone would speak to me what it was.”
While inspiration comes often from the natural world, the supernatural informs and guides their work.
Mary added: “Chisels and stones and wax and bronze are tools. Without the magic of creation, you have nothing.”
The Regats’ favorite piece of sacred art is the large monstrance at Blessed Sacrament Convent in Anchorage. The 52-inch wide circular bronze bas-relief was commissioned by Archbishop Francis Hurley. Immediately following its installation, the light of the setting sun through the convent’s south window crossed the monstrance’s polished center, filling the room with light. “It couldn’t have been more incredible,” Mary said of the culmination of a work whose creation she holds to be replete with God’s guiding presence.
“God is our agent,” Mary said of the miraculous ways the couple has been assisted in creating art. Jacques told of a dilemma while preparing a wax cast for shipping. When the Styrofoam needed to keep it from freezing and cracking was uncharacteristically unavailable, he voiced his frustration in his driveway, while 60-mile per hour winds swirled about him. Soon, large pieces of the industrial grade insulation, from seemingly nowhere, blew down the street.
Beyond aesthetics, the couple’s work has inspired careers. The mother of a young man so influenced, who owns several “Regats,” shared in a letter to them: “He and I enjoyed your magnificent art every day of his childhood. We travelled the seas studying whales and marine life. [My son] received his degree in wildlife biology and is spending his life as a professional photographer. He has told me many times how much your art inspired him.”
The Regats continue to produce work in diverse media. There are dozens of monumental installations in galleries, universities, and public and private buildings throughout Anchorage and Alaska; and in over 40 galleries in the United States, and overseas. Several archdiocesan buildings proudly display their artworks.
Ann Lee, a writer for St. Anthony’s parish bulletin, wrote 35 years ago about the installation of the church’s newly installed woodcarvings.
“Jacques and Mary Regat breathed new life into the wood from which they carved Saint Joseph and Saint Francis,” Lee commented. “Their gifts are living gifts, proclaiming stories of love for every person who worships in our midst.”