When the missionaries showed up at James Gurney’s house, the last thing they were expecting to do was play a game of baseball.
Here were a few well-dressed men who had probably spent the day visiting unwelcoming households, trudging yard to yard hoping to get a few words in edgewise before the homeowner, clearly annoyed, shut the door in their faces. If they were lucky they might be able to hand over one of their Watchtower magazines, a small victory considering the publications were no-doubt thrown away almost immediately.
They were likely expecting the same when they reached Gurney’s home. Best known for his bestselling Dinotopia books, Gurney is a renowned artist who has done illustrations for National Geographic and dozens of science fiction paperback covers. His sons were playing baseball in the yard when the missionaries arrived.
“When they came up to the door I just handed one of them a baseball bat and said ‘you’re up,’” Gurney told me in a phone interview last week. “I handed the other guy a ball and said ‘you’re pitching.’ And then I handed the third guy a mit and said ‘we’re playing outfield.’ And we started a baseball game that lasted about an hour or so.”
Though nobody realized it at the time, Gurney later told me that the occurrence could be considered a kind of performance art. He likened the “religion of baseball” to the religion these missionaries were trying to push, and in doing so understood he was engaging in a form of proselytizing of his own. “They seemed to be relieved that they didn’t have to do the hard sell,” he said.
This is not the only time he has met the door-to-door religious with such disarming artistic distraction. In Gurney’s blog, he published a post last week documenting his peculiar response to two Jehovah’s Witnesses who showed up at his Hudson Valley New York house.
The artist had grabbed his sketchbook on his way to the door and immediately asked one of them if he could sketch his portrait. “I just said, ‘why don’t you just read to me some of the stories from the Bible and that’s what they did,” Gurney recalled. “They were just reading from Noah and Genesis and the story of Lazarus. They’re great stories anyway. [The Jehovah's Witnesses] were kind of relieved too to just sit down and read stuff from the book.”
Because the artist had to concentrate so much on the drawing, he was unable to engage in any kind of back-and-forth religious discussion. And in avoiding that discussion, he said, he was able to humanize these two figures.
“I’m kind of a journalist with a pencil,” Gurney told me. “…Without thinking we all tend to fall into polarized positions when people come up to the door and I think it’s fun to just try to get outside that and talk to them as people. While I was sketching I could talk to them about raising kids and how they grew up and what kind of TV shows they watch. It got them off the track and they became like regular people.”
After Gurney posted the account and pictures of the two missionaries in his blog the response was immediate. His commenters began dissecting the situation, feeding on the ambiguity of his intentions to play a kind of guesswork art game. “I love stories where people engage strangers in a way only commonplace in the ‘good ol’ days’ where one was innocent until proven guilty and not the other way around,” one commenter wrote. “We all have a great potential to bring happiness to those around us, and you seem to use it to the max.”
Gurney launched his blog as a way of chronicling the tour for the last Dinotopia book. His publisher had recommended using a blog to take his fans along with him during his travels, but its focus soon expanded to cover a number of artistic topics.
“Whenever I have any kind of adventure that has something to do with art I try to weave it into the blog,” he said. “…I think out loud about my art on topics ranging from aesthetics to paint stroke mixing. I’m learning a lot from people who have commented…They give insights and tips and writing a blog post can be a form of rough drafting material where you have a thousand editors read it and give you feedback. It’s a real privilege as both a writer and an artist to have access to a group of like-minded people to critique your work.”
But not all who participate in his art projects are art aficionados. When Gurney played the three missionaries in the game of baseball, a few of their fellow church members climbed out of the vehicle they were waiting in to come and watch.
“After we were done playing they all started piling back into the car,” Gurney recalled. “One of the youngest of them turned to me as he was getting back in and said ‘this is the most fun we’ve ever had when we’re doing our rounds.’ And then he said ‘maybe that’s what the kingdom of Heaven is all about.’”