Bremerton artist Dave Ryan finds strength and passion through stenciling

Bremerton artist Dave Ryan works on a bottle cap mosaic at his garage studio. - Kristin Okinaka/staff photo
Bremerton artist Dave Ryan works on a bottle cap mosaic at his garage studio.
— image credit: Kristin Okinaka/staff photo

When Dave Ryan jumped off a ledge into a swimming hole at Fairmount Park in Philadelphia three years ago, he didn’t expect it would lead to a career in art.

Ryan and a friend had decided to explore the four corners of the country the summer of 2008 and they were headed toward the Florida Keys. However, he didn’t make it to Florida because he didn’t jump far enough away from the rocks and broke his sixth vertebrae and shattered his spinal cord at that stop in Philadelphia.

Some of the doctors told the Bremerton native that he would overcome his broken neck injury. Others said he could be paralyzed for life.

But, he woke up from surgery with a neck brace that he wore for two months. And bit by bit recovered. To regain his motor functions — at the beginning he had very poor dexterity — he did stencil-cutting. His mobility for the most part is now normal with the exception of his hands sometimes shaking and the inability to touch his chin to his chest. Now his art work is seen throughout Bremerton — sometimes on street signs — and for sale at various coffee shops in Central Kitsap. Most common are his old record pieces he turns into art by spray painting pop culture images on his stencil cut-outs.

“Doing this art has helped me get my motor functions back,” Ryan said in his garage full of spray paint supplies and old records. “I’ve been doing the art ever since.”

Stencil-cutting wasn’t anything brand new to him as he started doing it as a hobby in 2006. After recovering from his accident, Ryan’s stencil cut-outs of people from movies and pop culture such as The Beatles and Chewbacca from Star Wars, became a mainstay in his life. He started his business, Manticore Stencil Art. He attends art walks and street fairs in Kitsap and across the Puget Sound, as well as in Portland, to promote and sell his art.

“It’s just allowed me to have a lot of freedom with my life,” Ryan said.

Aside from the job allowing him to be flexible with how he goes about his days — Ryan said he likes that he is the only boss he has to answer to — there are other benefits to producing art that he never gave thought to before.

Ryan recalled when he received an email from a stranger in the fall of 2009 thanking him for helping him turn his life around. The man had lost custody of his children and saw a stenciled image of Angus Young, the guitarist for rock band AC/DC, painted on a piece of plywood that was posted on Wheaton Way in Bremerton.

The man had named his son after the musician and even though the man was arrested and spent that night in jail, he told Ryan that his art was “a sign” for him to get his life back on track.

“I didn’t get into this for the humanitarian benefits but it’s great to hear those stories,” Ryan said.

Besides reusing old records to create his pieces, Ryan also stencils over pre-existing paintings and drawings he finds at garage sales or anywhere else to “make them his own.”

Jessica Husted, general manager of Der Blokken Brewery in Bremerton, likes the fact that Ryan reuses old materials to make new art. He is currently working on a project for her — a mural of the Manette Bridge made entirely of bottle caps — to commemorate the 81-year-old Bremerton bridge for the brewery.

Ryan began working on the 4-foot-by-8-foot mural of the bridge in March 2010 and hopes to have it complete by the time the new bridge is up, which is scheduled for mid-November.

Not only is Husted a fan of his work, she also thinks his attitude is admirable.

“He has taken the bad things that have happened to him and turned it around and done something great,” Husted said of him springing back after his accident. “I am totally about supporting that.”

Fritz European Fry House at the Bremerton waterfront, owned by Husted, is one of several locations that features and sells Ryan’s stencil-work records.

How would he describe his work?

“It’s all childhood remnants, things that stuck with me,” Ryan said. “I definitely like the quirkier stuff.”

He has about 120 different stencils for the various images he paints on old records. He creates the records by layering different stencils on top of each other. Each piece is made up of about three to five different layers. The outline of the person or image is the first layer that is spray painted followed by shading and more detailed layers.

Ryan’s wife, Sarah Kleehammer, agreed that his art is fun and humorous.

“It takes you back to whatever nostalgic zone you had with that or of the current moment,” she said.

Kleehammer said her husband has always had a positive outlook on life. When he broke his neck, he asked her to send him a picture of her smiling, and he in turn sent her a picture of him smiling from his hospital bed in Philadelphia.

“It was a handicap for some time, but he saw that there was potential in it,” Kleehammer said.

Ryan, a 2002 Olympic High School graduate who later earned a degree from Western Washington University in creative writing, never anticipated he would have such a big injury or be running his own business. He completed an eight-week business program with Washington Community Alliance for Self-Help in May where he learned how to develop a business plan.

And he enjoys every moment he gets to meet new people and just create art.

He did eventually see all four corners of the United States. Ryan took his trip the following summer after his accident — even jumped off the same ledge successfully — because he said that once he has his mind set on something, he just does it.

And, aside from his motivated and positive outlook, he thinks what he is doing is uncommon.

“There’s no one else that does this,” Ryan said. “There’s no one else but me that is going to do it.”

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