The talent that began with teenage sketches of basketball star Kobe Bryant will soon become Darrell Chocolate's livelihood.
Bryant was one of nine people - including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna - killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday in California.
In 2003, when Chocolate was a senior, Bryant was coming off three back-to-back NBA championships. As a young artist growing up in Gameti, Chocolate was a fan. He admired Bryant’s crossover, which made for creative inspiration as he illustrated Bryant’s dunking ability on the page.
“I was a big fan,” he said, recalling sketching other athletes like longtime Toronto Raptor Vince Carter.
Chocolate's classmates would ask him to illustrate their own favourite players during his spare time in class. There were other early supporters: When he graduated, his art teacher commissioned an oil painting of a canoe trip to remember him by.
He said he focused on "just the detail,” when he created that piece. “And the facial likeness of the photograph, whether its animals or people. Just trying to create that same image.”
His artwork focuses on realism, attempting to capture the detail of a photograph onto the canvas. Chocolate always starts with a subjects’ eyes – they’re all unique, he said, like a fingerprint.
“Once you get the eyes done everything falls into place after that,” he said. “The nose, the mouth. But the eyes is what you want to capture the most.”
He adds colours later in the process to make the image more vivid.
His work carries a lot of humility, he said, explaining a commission to paint someone’s grandparent “will mean something to someone, and bring happiness to that person.”
Chocolate wanted to go to art school after graduation, but found work at Diavik Diamond Mine instead, leaving his high school sketches to suffice as his artistic background.
He continued to sketch, but never painted. In 2009, a co-worker at the mine asked for a portrait, which Chocolate worked on during his two weeks off.
His co-worker liked it and “my painting career started from there,” said Chocolate.
Chocolate built momentum until January 2019, when he won the Northwestel Art Competition for the cover of NWT’s phone directory. That earned him some national media coverage.
That was a focal point of his artistic life, he said, leading to more income and wider recognition, both from the community and southern Canada.
He hopes this backing will soon lead to a full-time art career. As a father of five children, he aims to focus on his creative output and help with the kids, no longer having to leave for two-week stretches (to work in the mine).
Currently, it’s difficult to spend time with his kids and create his art on his time off.
Given a full time career, he could work on larger projects, like a life-size portrait of he and his wife on their wedding he started two days ago.
“That would mean fulfilling my dream of becoming an artist. Because that’s what I liked to do right? That’s what I love to do since childhood,” he said. “Just create art. To do that full time, that would be my dream.
"It all started with sketches and basketball players."