Gunilla Skyttla was an innovator of Swedish textile art. She was much noted for her freestyle embroidery, particularly the hearts she created using textiles and mixed techniques.
Gunilla Skyttla was born in Stuvsta, Huddinge in 1934. Her parents were Algot Pettersson, a carpenter and Margit Pettersson. Gunilla Skyttla loved to draw and paint as a child. She was allowed to use her maternal grandmother’s loom, which she later put to use to make rugs out of rags with her mother. Gunilla Skyttla learned at an early age how to create various textile items, how to sew, how to knit, how to weave, and how to embroider, mostly without following patterns. As a child she benefited from the permissive and very free atmosphere of her parental home.
Gunilla Skyttla’s choice of clothing, her attitude and her views made her stand out at the girls’ school she attended, where she was seen as particularly charismatic. Her artistic skills continued to develop and the principal recommended that her parents allow her to be formally trained in the arts. After completing girls’ school Gunilla Skyttla then attended a one-year course at the vocational school Västerbotten läns landstings yrkes- och verkstadsskola. She then applied to attend Konstfackskolan (now Konstfack, college of arts, crafts and design), bringing two bags full of her work to show the school principal who was suitably taken aback and asked if she had created all these bits of art herself.
At Konstfack Gunilla Skyttla again enjoyed a great freedom in her artistic expression, encouraged by her teacher, Professor Edna Martin, and by contemporary innovations within textile art, less bound by traditions and older techniques. It was whilst she was at Konstfack that she adopted the surname of Skyttla. It was also there that she met her future husband, Raine Navin. Gunilla Skyttla completed her textile art studies at Konstfack in 1961. Her final year was spent as a special student. After producing a much-acclaimed ‘röllakan’ woollen rug, Edna Martin took Gunilla Skyttla on as her assistant for the children’s embroidery courses organised through Handarbetets Vänner and for the accompanying book, Barnbroderi, published in 1965.
Gunilla Skyttla then worked for Stockholm city and council handicrafts association located at Hornsgatan, where she ran weaving courses, and at Svensk Hemslöjd at their Sveavägen premises in Stockholm. In addition to producing woven rugs at Susan Gröndal’s workshop on Mäster Samuelsgatan she also ran weaving courses through various other associations.
Following a move to Kalmar in 1967 Gunilla Skyttla was put in charge of Hemslöjden’s creative games for children in Kalmar, which had been set up by her then friend (and later husband) Raine Navin. Thee children’s courses, which ran until 1974, formed a new element within the Hemslöjden enterprise, offering children complete creative freedom. In 1971 Gunilla Skyttla was awarded the Kalmar municipality cultural prize “for her use of the captivating nature of textile creations and for her inspirational significance as a guide in freestyle creativity for children’s groups”. In addition to her creative games Gunilla Skyttla also designed embroidery patterns for Hemslöjden.
Gunilla Skyttla and Raine Navin spent their first years in Kalmar living in an old-fashioned five-room apartment on Kaggensgatan, after which they moved to a larger apartment on Södra Långgatan in the same city. The apartment was not just their home but also their studio where they had an open-door policy for their friends, acquaintances, and many of the local artists. In 1981 Raine Navin (now Gunilla Skyttla’s husband) resigned from Hemslöjden in Kalmar in order to devote more time to his own artwork. This left the couple in financial difficulty. Their friends and acquaintances supported them to the best of their abilities, providing them with art supplies, materials, ribbons, yarn, lace, cellophane, buttons, and other items, which they then turned into works of art. The couple were delighted to inherit items out from a former Kalmar haberdashery and, on another occasion, from a sewing accessories shop.
Gunilla Skyttla’s artwork, although based within traditional Swedish handicrafts, took the form of freestyle creations which sought to convey a message of love to her fellow humans. She did this by repeatedly creating images and sculpted pieces out of textiles and other, often recycled, materials to form hearts. Taking inspiration from a visit to Sacre Coeur in Paris she created a heart which she named after the famous French church. It resembles a sparkling jewel or a rose window allowing light to shine out of the darkness. Indeed, another of her pieces is entitled just that: Det lyser i mörkret. She created a piece called Klappa mitt hjärta for one of her very first heart-displays held at Borgholm library in the spring of 1988. Other famous works by her include Styngskvättans hjärta, Frödes hjärta, and Hjärtats glöd. Her piece called Art Heart is a sculpted heart made out of wire and buttons, whilst her work named Allegria is a multi-coloured heart-shape formed out of matchboxes.
Gunilla Skyttla and Raine Navin were a couple who lived in a symbiotic relationship although they only married in 1986. Eventually they were able to earn a living as inspirational sources behind and leaders of courses, seminars, and workshops. They ran a variety of courses throughout Sweden, for school-children, and pre-school children, for teachers, consultants, pensioners, interns, business people and others. For a brief time Gunilla Skyttla worked as an inspirational artist at Högskolan för Design och Konsthantverk, HDK-Valand in Gothenburg.
The couple also appeared on several TV and radio programmes, both for children and for adults. Gunilla Skyttla also frequently wrote engaging letters, often sending A4-sized letters to her friends, acquaintances, the authorities, and others. She also wrote by hand, using large, generously-proportioned letters, decorating her letters with hearts, curlicues, flowers, and pictures – like minor artworks in their own right.
Gunilla Skyttla was a member of Kvinnor för fred (Women For Peace) and the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society. Through her art she was calling out to humanity – against violence, hate, and environmental damage but for love, peace and freedom. She and her husband also became somewhat notorious attractions in their town. They attracted attention through their style of dress and behaviour, through their compassion for others and warmth. Kalmar castle Rotary club honoured the couple one year, awarding them a certificate in recognition that they “through their spontaneity and creativity had made both the adults and children of Kalmar happier and jollier”.
In 1982 Kalmar konstmuseum awarded Gunilla Skyttla the Sydosten stipend. Erik Broman, head of the museum, gave a speech in which he emphasised that she was “altogether too bold and too versatile” to work in the countryside and that her creative activities required the “openness of the metropolis”. Gunilla Skyttla held solo exhibitions throughout Sweden and she also participated in many group shows. She received official commissions from churches, Kalmar county hospital, Fjärde AP-fonden, M/S Saga, and from many other sources.
Today Gunilla Skyttla’s artwork can be seen at Kalmar konstmuseum, Kalmar läns Museum, Statens konstråd, Region Kalmar, Kalmar kommun, Kristianstads Museum, Kristianstads kommun, Röhsska Konstlöjdsmuseet, in Gothenburg, PK-banken, Västerbottens Museum, Apoteksbolaget, Textilmuseet, Borås, Länsmuseet Skara, Länsmuseet Gävle, Landskrona kommun, Skellefteå kommun, Skövde Konsthall, Gislaveds kommun and Gnosjö kommun.
Gunilla Skyttla died at her home in Kalmar in 2016. This was followed six months by the death of her husband Raine.
During the spring of 2016 Raine helped to establish the non-profit organisation called Gunilla Skyttla och Raine Naivin’s Vänner. This association seeks to safeguard and protect Gunilla Skyttla’s and Raine Naivin’s art and their artistic enterprise.