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Q&A: Mio’s path to illustrating for the PHF

“I’m really just a kid grown up online with a love for fantasy, worldbuilding, history, fashion, animation and the magical who loves doing art, and doesn’t really want to do anything else with my life.”

Minnesota Whitecaps (PHF)

For Swedish illustrator Mio, art has always been a constant in life.

As a kid, she grew up playing clarinet, doing theatre, and making movies with her flip phone, but it wasn’t until the ages of 12 and 13 that she really fell in love with drawing and illustration — something she’s transformed from a passion into something more.

Mio’s path to hockey was different from that of many modern day followers of the sport. After all, her focus in life had always been on the arts — she’d never been the kid interested in sports, at least not beyond skiing, cycling, and some figure skating, which are the sports her family is interested in. Hockey was never really on her radar, despite growing up in a country where ice hockey is one of, if not the, most popular sports.

We sat down with the illustrator behind the Minnesota Whitecaps’ and Buffalo Beauts’ brand new t-shirt designs to learn more about the concepts behind the art and the illustrator herself.

The Ice Garden: First off, tell me a little bit about yourself and your background with illustration and design. When did you get into illustration and design, and how did that happen?

Mio: If you know me, you know my art extends into everything I do to the extreme: it’s what study, it’s what I work with, it’s what I do for fun and it’s how I see the world. I’ve jokingly told my friends before that I’m as obsessed with art as Sidney Crosby is obsessed with hockey.

Really, I’ve spent most of my early teens online: on Minecraft servers, forums, and all kinds of online communities and at the core of all those experiences, it’s always been art. I did art for in-game currency, drew people’s characters and helped out with graphics; that turned into doing actual commissioned work after a couple of years, studying visual communication in high school, and just drawing all the time. If there was an opportunity to turn more of my life focused around art, I took it.

I’m really just a kid grown up online with a love for fantasy, worldbuilding, history, fashion, animation and the magical who loves doing art, and doesn’t really want to do anything else with my life.

TIG: How did you get into the sport of hockey, and when did you decide to combine your passion for the sport with your talents as an illustrator?

Mio: I think you might expect me to have grown up with hockey since I’m Swedish, which I have to a certain degree. You’re grown up in a hockey town in Sweden, you’re bound to encounter it but I’ve never cared about it or thought it was for me. Sports have never really been anything I’ve shown interest in throughout my teens beyond skiing, cycling and some figure skating (sports my family enjoy). I’m the queer art kid: I thought sports wasn’t for me. Hockey was something I never expected to fall in love with, in the way I did.

The journey into hockey has been fast and slow at the same time: I think my first introduction to the fact that hockey could be different from what I’m used to was [Ngozi Ukazu’s webcomic] Check, Please! which I’ve read on and off through the past five years. It wasn’t what got me directly into actually enjoying the sport, though, which didn’t happen until summer 2020. I had seen some hockey pop up in my feed, a friend on Twitter was really into the sport, and I had started to gain a slight curiosity towards it, but it wasn’t until I saw the [NHL’s] Seattle Kraken jerseys that I realized that hockey could be something.

I don’t think I would have become as obsessed with hockey as I am, without my art. What drew me to hockey was aesthetic and good design, what made me stay was me discovering how much I loved drawing and creating around the sport. There was something about the sport that was so addicting to draw: each team had such a fun and exciting aesthetic to play with, as well each game gave new ideas to draw. As an artist, I love playing with concepts and themes: hockey is just a sandbox full of potential, and even 1.5 year later, I’ve gotten nowhere close to running out of ideas.

At first, I mainly drew for fun: sharing it with my hockey friends, and it became a part of how I consumed the sport. It wasn’t something I wanted to work with or post outside of the world of hockey, but then some people started to pay attention to my work and I realized that being creative around sports is entirely possible, which wasn’t something I had thought about before.

Come to life: The t-shirt Mio designed for the NHL’s Dallas Stars Pride Night
Mio, Dallas Stars (NHL)

I made my Twitter around a year ago, and started to post my art there. It wasn’t until around February [or] March when I started to get some more attention, including the [NHL’s Dallas] Stars contacting me to design their Pride T-Shirt, that I realized I could work with this and turn it into something more. From there, it’s only grown more and more and at this point, hockey is so ingrained in what I do and my work.

TIG: Obviously your native Sweden has a pretty impressive women’s hockey scene, what with the immensely successful SDHL and the Swedish women’s national team. How did you get into women’s hockey specifically? Do you have a hometown team or a favorite women’s hockey team in Sweden?

Mio: I actually got into women’s hockey through the PHF! I wasn’t really interested in Swedish hockey when I first got into hockey, so my introduction to the sport has really been through a North American perspective. As the women’s hockey scene was quite quiet during 2020, I didn’t get into it until around a year ago when I started to pay more attention to the PHF and their teams, and similarly to how I started to love NHL hockey through my art, the same happened to the PHF where I started to do art for fun for the league, especially once the Isobel Cup in Lake Placid kicked off. It was really thanks to Twitter and the engagement of my friends that introduced me fully to the PHF, and through there, it became quickly apparent that women’s hockey was a completely unique and wonderful dimension of the sport I have immense love and passion towards.

Right now, I’m actually quite into the SDHL. [It] took a bit of time, but as I become more comfortable as a hockey fan, I’ve started to become more into Swedish hockey. My hometown doesn’t actually have a SDHL team (albeit we have a team i Damettan) but I study in Luleå which actually has the best SDHL team in Sweden. I think we’ve won around... four years in a row, right now? So the city I live in has a really active community around women’s hockey. ... As a women’s hockey fan, it’s a really wonderful city to live in and it’s quite fun to have a team that is very good to root for. I’ve gotten more into hockey here locally, as I’ve started playing with a local team for fun (albeit, I’m still learning and quite bad at it) and that has also gotten me even more into hockey here in Luleå.

TIG: Switching gears now to discuss the designs you worked on for the PHF. Tell me a little bit about how the process of designing shirts for the Whitecaps and the Beauts got started. Who reached out to you about the projects? What was your initial reaction to the opportunity?

Mio: I actually made a tweet about wanting to do some work for the PHF, and [NLTT Hockey Ventures Director of Marketing] Ksenia [Selemon] DMed me from that tweet about possibly being interested in doing some work together. It was really fun getting that message, especially as I expressed interest in doing something and then it actually happened! It’s still kind of wild that people who work in the industry notice my work, and want to work with me! It’s the thing one has always dreamed about as an artist, and it’s unreal it’s starting to happen.

We had a first meeting where we casually talked about different ideas for what we could do, and through a couple of meetings, we eventually settled on doing two T-shirt designs for Minnesota and the Beauts. Through there, we had a few meetings through the process and it was a really fun experience coming up with the designs.

TIG: Where did you draw your inspiration from for each design? Talk to me a little bit about the conceptualization of each illustration and how you worked with each team to create something wholly unique to the franchise (that is to say, the Whitecaps design looks wholly different conceptually from the Beauts — how did you separate these projects in your head when you could have defaulted to something similar for both?).

Mio: I think it’s a similar process to all my work. Luckily, I got a lot of creative freedom with the initial pitches, where it was really, ‘Well, what do you want to do with these two teams?’ and that is really where I thrive. I’m a very conceptual person in my work, and y’know, for me, each team has a distinct feeling, atmosphere and story to be told, so that is really what I do with my work and my process.

I look at what each team is to me, and I try to tell that story through my art. Through that process, I think every design becomes quite unique as every team has a very distinctive feel and atmosphere about them, so the concepts I have do differ. In this though, I did have a few different pitches for both teams and I did have a more ethereal design for the Whitecaps, and a more city-based design for the Beauts as well, so it is also that we ended up with two final concepts that had very different atmospheres for each team, as what both teams wanted was also quite different from each other.

It really began with me and Ksenia brainstorming and talking ideas together, coming up with what each team represents, what works for them, what is theme, the atmosphere, etc and from there, coming up with a few initial concepts.

For the Beauts, I was really drawn to the idea of Buffalo as the ‘queen city’ and that is really where my mind went at first, and that is what the final design became. I love the crown, I love how the light blue feels quite royal and luxurious, and I think that entire atmosphere of ‘ice queens’ suits the Buffalo Beauts very well. An important part of my process is, of course, the Pinterest board and the sketching, and so, a lot of my inspiration for the Beauts was jewelry, embroidery and ornate patterns, which became the style influence for the concept that we settled on. It was honestly a lot of sketching to get the kind of patterns and iconography I wanted for the piece, but once it all got into colour, it really started to come together.

I really just wanted to capture a feeling of royalty, the bond between players and fairytales in the piece: almost as if it could be an illustration taken from a storybook about the Buffalo Beauts, and I do think I ended up with something close to that.

The Minnesota Whitecaps took a completely different direction, I did have a more fantastical concept in mind for them, but both me and Ksenia really got stuck on one particular pin in my Pinterest board that was an illustrated map, and from there, doing a fun touristy design that embodied the team became the obvious choice. The Whitecaps are a team that is so connected to their state, that we both felt it was a wonderful way of both honoring Minnesota and the team, and creating a design that suited what they wanted to do well.

What I want to do with my art is really tell the stories of the teams through my work, and I do think I did that to a certain degree with these designs.

TIG: What are your goals for the future with regard to your design/illustration career?

Mio: At the moment, honestly, the dream is to work with sports illustration and design. I am studying graphic design and art has always been what I wanted to work with, so, right now, that feels like the obvious path to take that combines all my passions. I’d love to do more merch designs, as well as designing game posters and content for social media. Something I dream of doing is being able to do more editorial art i.e for magazines, blogs, etc and being able to tell the story of the sport that way, but really, I just.. want to draw hockey and hopefully I’ll be able to work with it.

I really just want to show how I see the sport which is really just tons of stories, concepts and aesthetics in my head, and being able to make other people feel how the sport makes me feel through my work is really what i want to do.

You can peruse Mio’s online portfolio at esmiora.com, and purchase her t-shirts online at the Buffalo Beauts store and the Minnesota Whitecaps store.

Editor’s note: Portions of the interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.