Play, triptych chronicles knitter's artistic, spiritual journeys

Kingston-born Kirk Dunn will be performing his one-actor play, "The Knitting Pilgrim," in the city Friday evening at the Tett Centre. (Jorjas Photography/Supplied Photo)

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In 2003, Kirk Dunn came up with the idea of knitting three tapestries, each one dedicated to a different Abrahamic faith. He figured the pieces, each reminiscent of stained-glass windows, would take about a year to complete.

“I figured it should take about a month to design everything, and three months to knit each one,” the Kingston-born Dunn believed.

He just finished his “Stitched Glass” triptych last year — 14 years later than he thought.

Dunn — who will be in Kingston on Friday to hold a knitting workshop in the afternoon and perform his one-man play based on the creation of those tapestries in the evening — believes he could have finished the five-foot-by-nine-foot tapestries within that year if he had spent every waking hour knitting, but “life got in the way.”

Dunn had been working as an actor, but left it for a steadier job as a corporate trainer because he had two children to help raise and a family to support as well as a project to undertake.

Before he started, though, the son of a Presbyterian father — Rev. Dr. Zander Dunn presided at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church on Amherst Island and at what was Amherstview Community Church back then — needed to do more research on Judaism and Islam, and even Christianity.

“When you think about any of these faiths, there’s just so much history,” the former Amherst Island resident said over the phone from his Toronto home. “There’s so much information it’s overwhelming. It took me quite a while to pare down what it was I wanted to say.”

Once Dunn — who will also perform at Amherst Island Public School Sunday afternoon — had figured out a plan, he had to undertake the knitting itself.

“The style of knitting that I do was very labour-intensive,” he said, adding that his technique was a variation of the intarsia technique.

“Knitting is not fast at the best of times. There are some people who can do it incredibly quickly, but they’re working with one colour, one yarn, and they just motor. What I’m doing is choosing colours as I go and I’m using multiple strands of yarn. I knit two or three stitches, then I’d stop. And then I’d have to look for colours, find the colours I wanted, pick them out and combine them.”

Dunn, whose family left this area to do missionary work in Guyana for three years before resettling in North Bay, first started knitting in 1987. He worked as an actor then, and the play he was in with his then-girlfriend was about gender equality. He remembers seeing a sweater he liked, and, instead of buying it, she told him she would instead knit it for him. He figured if she could do it, then so could he.

And, with acting being a “hurry up and wait” profession, he would find himself knitting during rehearsals and while travelling to bide his time.

Years later, in 1998, at the urging of wife Claire, he approached renowned American artist Kaffe Fassett, who liked his designs, about apprenticing with him.

“His love of colour is very much what inspired me and the flavour I have in my work,” Dunn said.

He includes the story about his month spent working under Fassett in his one-actor new play, The Knitting Pilgrim, which he co-wrote with his wife.

In the hour-long production, Dunn discusses his spiritual and artistic journey over the 15 years it took him to complete the triptych. He talks about each of the intricate tapestries, which also serve as backdrops during the show.

“That journey is meandering and awkward and doubles back on itself,” he said. “It falters and it starts again.”

He hopes people come away realizing that people from different religious backgrounds have more in common than what sets them apart.

“In looking at all of them, you realize that God is bigger than any one faith, and it’s just ridiculous and really arrogant to claim you have the only way,” he said.

He admitted, though, that he had his doubts about being able to pull off The Knitting Pilgrim.

“I was never sure it would be stage-worthy. The last few months have been the most intense and terrifying of my life,” Dunn admitted. “We were putting on this show and I had very little faith that it would be interesting.”

So far, both his handiwork and stage work — the hardest work began once the triptych was complete, he said — have been warmly received.

“I am gobsmacked,” he said, adding that, at times, those tapestries have felt like an albatross around his neck.

He said he sometimes gets a puzzled look when he explains his project to people.

“There’s no real model for it,” he said. “You’re standing astride two different worlds.”

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Essentials

What: The Knitting Pilgrim is a play about the artistic and spiritual journey of Kingston-born Kirk Dunn while creating his “Stitched Glass” triptych. He will also hold a “Loyalist” pillow knitting workshop.

When: Friday, May 17, 8 p.m. (play in Kingston), and Sunday, May 19, 2 p.m. (play on Amherst Island). Workshop runs from 1 to 4 p.m. Friday (Kingston) and Saturday (Amherst Island).

Where: Rehearsal Hall, Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning, 370 King St. W. (Friday); Amherst Island Public School (Sunday).

Cost: $20 (play), $40 (workshop).

For more: kirkdunn.com