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Q&A with Ryan Spence

Product Designer and Fabricator, Consultant, and Public Skatepark Advocate By Marguerite Cleveland

ryan spence

Ryan Spence has been scuba certified since he was 13 and has long loved the sea. In 2001, he began collecting vintage diving equipment. By the early 2000s, interest in Jacque Cousteau had faded into obscurity. In a bit of serendipity, Spence stumbled upon an ad for a Cousteau team sweater and a trademark red watch cap on eBay. To his surprise, he won the auction and began his collection of Cousteau artifacts—which has now morphed into the largest in the world.

Q. You have one of the largest private collections of Jacques Cousteau artifacts in the world. How did that come about?

A. The collection started when I found a Cousteau red hat and expedition sweater that had belonged to the former chief diver for the Cousteau Society. From there I began to network through former Cousteau team members, Cousteau collaborators—and even the Cousteau family itself. After a while I became the depository for equipment, photographs, documents, and other ephemera relating to Cousteau history. The experience has taken me around the world. I have had the opportunity to work with so many amazing people and collaborate with world-renowned institutions like the Cousteau Society, The Oceanographic Institute of Monaco, and The National Maritime Museum.

Q. Many of our readers grew up learning about the ocean watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau." Any way to share that experience with our children?

A. As the result of writing articles and exhibiting Cousteau equipment around the world, I have had the opportunity to work on two feature films about Cousteau, and I was featured on the Travel Channel's series “Mysteries at the Museum.” The most recent project is the National Geographic documentary, “Becoming Cousteau,” which is streaming on Disney+. I also worked on the French biopic “Le Odyssee.” For this film I fabricated and restored a range of diving equipment used during the underwater scenes. The underwater scenes were filmed on location in South Africa, Croatia, the Bahamas, and Antarctica.

Q. What is your favorite exhibit you have worked on for the Foss Waterway Seaport?

A. One of my favorite exhibits at the Seaport is the one I curate featuring Cousteau’s adventures in Tacoma and the waters of Puget Sound. Cousteau’s ship Calypso was built in Ballard, Washington, and he filmed Giant Pacific Octopus off Tacoma during the sea trials of his second ship Alcyone. Alcyone is a hybrid wind ship that would travel the world as a partner to Calypso. A few of the highlights of the exhibit are Jacques Cousteau’s personal wetsuit and diving tanks featured in his Academy award-winning film “The Silent World.” In addition to learning about Cousteau, you can experience the evolution of diving equipment and see a set of scuba tanks owned by author and adventurer Ernest Hemmingway.

Q. Can you share with our readers your support for the local community and business development with Fifth Floor Tacoma and Spaceworks?

A. Fifth Floor Tacoma is a design and fabrication facility I operate. In addition to my production space and private skatepark, we have co-production spaces focused on incubating like-minded businesses. Fifth Floor Tacoma also houses a full-service photo studio focused on servicing local and national brands. Our resident photographers have worked with ETC Tacoma, True Golf Shoes, Richlite/Skatelite, Abercrombie Kids, King Ranch, Brooks Running, Microsoft, Disney, and a host of other clients.

I have been on the Steering Committee for Spaceworks Tacoma since 2012. I am proud to support the work Spaceworks does incubating and developing entrepreneurs, artists, and the creative economy here in Tacoma. It is important that we create and support diverse opportunities for all members of Tacoma. As Tacoma grows, we need to elevate the people and businesses who made and continue to make Tacoma great and ensure that they are equipped to adapt and be competitive on the highest levels.

Q. You build and design skateboard ramps. What role does skateboarding play in your life?

A. Skateboarding has always been more than a physical activity for me. Skateboarding is the conduit through which I learned to design and build and participate in community building and advocacy. I started building ramps and making skateboards at the age of 10. I received my first building permit for my backyard ramp at age 12. I have been actively engaged in advocating for public skateparks for over 20 years. For the last 15 years I have focused on the development and execution of a comprehensive skatepark master plan in partnership with Metro Parks Tacoma.

During my years at the University of Puget Sound I designed and built their indoor climbing facility, the Pizza Cellar Restaurant, and participated in the University’s long range plan for facility development. The climbing facility at Puget Sound launched my career in the climbing industry that continues today. I designed indoor climbing facilities for 20 years, and I continue to design climbing holds that are distributed worldwide by e-Grips and Trango. Locally I designed and built Climb Tacoma, The Cirque Climbing Gym in Lacey, and multiple Vertical World Gyms around the region.

After retirement from building climbing gyms full time, I pursued a wide range of opportunities in the skateboard industry and focused on freelance product design, development and fabrication.

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