By Melissa Arnold
For most of his childhood, Richard Torrey dreamed of becoming the world’s first pro hockey player/cartoonist. His father, Bill Torrey, brought home multiple Stanley Cups as a general manager in the National Hockey League. Following in his father’s footsteps was practically his destiny. But young Rich found that his passions were leading elsewhere.
Torrey has spent more than 30 years engaging readers, first as a comic strip creator and later as the author and illustrator of more than 15 children’s books. In February, the North Shore Public Library in Shoreham will showcase his childlike imagination with an exhibit titled, Richard Torrey: The Creative Process.
Born in Los Angeles, Torrey grew up all over the U.S. and Canada, spending long summers in a Canadian cabin without TV or other technological distractions.
“I was always drawing,” recalls Torrey, 59, who now resides in Shoreham. “My mind would wander, and I was always coming up with new ideas. I used to cut out the Sunday comics and try to figure out how to draw the characters.”
As luck should have it, Torrey had a chance opportunity to meet beloved Peanuts cartoonist Charles M. Schulz thanks to his father’s career in hockey. Schultz was a diehard fan and season ticketholder for the now-defunct Oakland Seals, where the elder Torrey was general manager in 1970. Rich approached Schulz during a hockey game, eager to present him with a drawing of a horse he’d done recently.
“He wrote feedback on the back of my drawing, and was so kind,” Torrey recalled. “That moment hooked me.”
Still, he found art classes in school terribly boring and too structured, and while he first majored in pre-med at Allegheny College, he knew immediately it wouldn’t work. He got a degree is psychology mostly out of obligation and spent the next several years working with his father, directionless.
But there was plenty of downtime on the job, and Torrey always found himself drawing. Despite self-doubt, his big break finally came in 1984 when his first comic strip, “Heartland,” was picked up for syndication in 180 newspapers.
Torrey would go on to create a successful sports-themed strip called “Pete and Clete,” but as the newspaper industry began to change, he wondered what else he might do for work.
“I looked for avenues that would be a good fit for my style of illustration, and children’s books seemed like the answer,” he said. While Torrey first took jobs illustrating for others, he continued to fill notebooks and reams of cheap paper with drawings, bits of text and storylines of his own. He knew he had to try writing his own books.
“Nine times out of ten it’s going to be a horrible idea, but if you generate enough of them, something is bound to be good,” Torrey said. “All kinds of things inspire me — it might be something on the radio or something my kids did growing up, or just lines that pop into my head.”
Today, Torrey considers himself an artist that writes. His award-winning stories, including “Ally-saurus & the First Day of School” (Sterling), “My Dog, Bob” (Holiday House) and the series “Why,” “Almost” and “Because” (HarperCollins), are drawn or painted almost entirely by hand in a variety of mediums.
Lorena Doherty, adult program coordinator and art coordinator of the North Shore Public Library, said that Torrey is a regular library user and has occasionally read his books to children during special programs there. He is also a well-known speaker at area schools and an instructor at the Art League of Long Island. “Illustrators are genuine artists, and we love to feature local members of our community,” Doherty said. “He uses quick, simple pencil lines in his drawings, and there’s a storyboard quality about them. He’s very playful. This exhibit is different in a fresh way, and I believe it has a wide appeal.”
The exhibit will feature approximately 25 illustrations from Torrey’s career in varied stages of completion, along with text from Torrey explaining his inspirations and work process.
“I think people will enjoy getting a peek into the way I operate when I’m doing a book,” Torrey said. “I talk to kids often, and I tell them that none of it is magic. It’s a lot of work, and a lot of mistakes. There is no single route for creativity. I want people to see the bumps and bruises [in my work]. The path to success isn’t a straight line, it’s more like a ball of yarn.”
See Richard Torrey: The Creative Process from Feb. 1 through 27 at the North Shore Public Library, 250 Route 25A, Shoreham. Torrey will also speak at the library’s Art Forum meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 13 at 7 p.m. For more information, please call 631-929-4488.