Finding empathy one stitch at a time

The Knitting Pilgrim seeks humanity’s common thread

Kirk Dunn, star of The Knitting Pilgrim, spent 15 years hand-knitting the backdrop to his one-man show – three brightly coloured tapestries that look like stained glass windows and are inspired by the religions of the world.

With each stitch and purl, Dunn came closer to his goal of using art to promote empathy and peace.

“The hope behind Stitched Glass has always been to create conversation. A conversation between all people – believers and non-believers – who find themselves in conflict,” said Dunn, who descends from three generations of Presbyterian ministers.

“My experience in the church was always a good one. There was nothing fire and brimstone about it, and nothing to be feared,” he said. “So I was always a bit disappointed that a lot of people had a much different view of religion.”

He explained that conversations with fellow Christians and people from other faiths revealed that religion can be a source of international and individual strife.

“That kind of dissonance made me wonder, how is religion – which is supposed to be good and encourages peace and cooperation and harmony – how is it seen in the world as an agent of the exact opposite of those things?” he said.

To answer that question, Dunn picked up his knitting needles, looking to create something that he hoped would bring people together across theological lines.

“How can we better understand and empathize with each other? Everyone has a unique background, point of view and experience – and at the same time, many experiences are universal,” he said. “Focusing on what knits us together, rather than what pulls us apart, is a place to start.”

Dunn’s 15-year spiritual and artistic pilgrimage to create the Stitched Glass panels inspired his one-act show, The Knitting Pilgrim, which is coming to Port Dover on January 25 to kick off Lighthouse Festival Theatre’s One Act Festival with performances at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Directed by Jennifer Tarver and co-written by Dunn and his partner, veteran film and TV writer Claire Ross Dunn, the show debuted at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto last May. It has since toured to 50 communities in Ontario, playing to sold-out theatres and garnering rave reviews at the Toronto, Ottawa, and Hamilton Fringe festivals.

“I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how much people have appreciated it and how much they see themselves in my story. And what they take out of it. I’ve honestly been a bit gob-smacked about how it’s been received,” Dunn said.

“The style of the show is very non-threatening and welcoming and conversational. It allows the audience to walk with me as I go through this journey.”

While ideal for knitters – indeed, audience members can bring their own knitting projects to work on during the show – you don’t have to be crafty, or particularly religious, to enjoy The Knitting Pilgrim, Claire Ross Dunn explained.

“One thing we hear often is, ‘I didn’t think I’d like the show because I’m not a knitter.’ It’s why our postcard says ‘a show that is about knitting and not about knitting at all,’” she said.

What knits together Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is their founding father, Abraham. So Dunn dedicated his three panels to telling the stories of the three Abrahamic faiths. Each panel took one year to research and design and a further four years to knit, a painstaking process that saw Dunn, an actor by trade, spend every free moment with knitting needles in hand.

On movie sets, in theatres, on buses and subways, he worked away, weaving over 90 pounds of yarn into three panels, each nine feet high by five feet wide, that shimmer with light, colour and meaning.

Using stockinette stitch – knitting in one direction and purling back – he likens his approach to that of Impressionist or Pointillist painters, in that he knits with four strands at once, meaning the colours combine and “pop” when seen from the stage.

“As I knit, the strands twist, and every stitch features a different combination of the strands,” Dunn said of his unique colour-blending technique. “And what that does is it makes it look like there’s some play of the light on it. It looks translucent – like something’s coming through, or it’s actually shining.”

The giant panels are a far cry from Dunn’s first attempt at knitting more than 30 years ago.

“I had a girlfriend who’d knit me a sweater, so I figured the big surprise would be to knit her a sweater in return,” he said. “I wasn’t very good at teaching myself. I basically had a couple of booklets called “How to Knit” and I went from one diagram to the next.

Friends and staff at his local yarn store helped him refine his improvised technique, but he couldn’t escape the knitter’s agony of unravelling rows of work to fix an errant stitch.

“I was ripping out knitting on a shockingly regular basis. But you know, you live and learn. And that’s something that knitters get used to,” said Dunn.

Much more often, he found joy and solace in knitting.

“You take something that wasn’t anything, really – a bunch of yarn – and you turn it into a wearable piece of art. It’s beautiful and it’s functional at the same time,” he said. “It’s that satisfaction of creation – of making something that wasn’t there before. It’s a really rejuvenating and replenishing thing to be able to do.”

Dunn’s friends and relatives soon learned to expect knitwear under their Christmas trees.

“There was one year where my entire family got Icelandic sweaters. I think I did 10 of them,” Dunn said. “And then I got into this crazy Stitched Glass and all I was doing was that. Nobody got anything for 15 years.”

Instead, he was working on a gift for the world. He hopes that along with enjoying the story and appreciating the tapestries themselves, audience members leave The Knitting Pilgrim feeling more welcoming of others, no matter their background or how they worship.

“We actually have a lot in common and we can understand these other faiths and other approaches by learning about them, and by looking at ourselves from their point of view,” Dunn said.

“We’re all saying exactly the same thing. And there can be multiple ways to approach things, and to get closer to God and have a relationship with the divine. We have all these shared beliefs, and so much more that unites us than sets us apart. Can we remember that?”

Tickets to The Knitting Pilgrim are $29 each, or $75 for a three-show subscription to the One Act Festival. To learn more, call the box office toll free at 1-888-779-7703 or click here.