Artist Apollo Kluchin wiped a roller through a tray of white paint on Wednesday and began applying it to a window at Escobar’s Training Grounds.
He moved the paint roller back and forth with ease, as if he’d performed the maneuver thousands of times before. An image started to form in just a few seconds: snow-covered hills, lined with trees.
Already, his shirt showed splashes of paint.
“I grew up with one of these in my hands,” he said, holding up the paint-soaked tool.
For the past 40 years, Kluchin, who lives in southern California, has come to South Lake Tahoe during the holidays to decorate the town’s windows. He thoroughly enjoys the work, he said, but it’s not his main profession.
The 65-year-old painter is an accomplished artist, and his work has reached a worldwide audience, according to his newsletter.
His paintings, which typically focus on animals or the environment, range from $1,500 to $250,000 and have been showcased at a number of shows and exhibits.
Kluchin’s work keeps him busy, he said. But instead of attending what might have been another expo on Wednesday, he was painting what could have been his 5,000th tree on a window.
“I get to decorate the whole town,” he said with a smile.
Kluchin grabbed another brush and began painting a fence between the trees. It had been years since his dad, a painting contractor, handed him his first paint roller.
However, his parents weren’t the inspiration for pursuing a career in art, he said. That came later, after a major car accident changed his life.
A life-after-death experience
The moment Kluchin chose to make art his life’s mission occurred sometime in 1973, he said. He was driving down a road in southern California when the brakes went out in his Volkswagen Bus.
His vehicle was traveling about 60 mph, he said. If he didn’t turn off the road, he would have smashed into a truck in front of him. He had to make a decision, and fast.
“Everything I thought in a second,” he said, referring to the short amount of time before his accident.
At the last moment, he yanked the steering wheel, drove the car off the road and crashed head-on into a tree with no seat belt on, he said. The impact sent him flying through the front window.
What happened next was a life-after-death experience, Kluchin said.
“All of sudden, I was going through this like wormhole thing from Star Trek,” he said.
Before long, Kluchin said he was walking through a meadow with a “Christ-like” being. The being had a white beard, blue eyes and spoke to Kluchin about making art his life’s focus.
“I was given a chance to come back and do something with my life that made a difference,” he said.
Kluchin awoke in front of his car, surrounded by concerned pedestrians. He said despite being launched out of his vehicle, he didn’t have a scratch on him. Art has been his focus ever since.
“All I’m trying to do is send a very important message through art that we need to protect this planet and respect it,” he said.
A life of painting
Since his accident, Kluchin has been doing his best to spread “the energy of love,” he said. It’s gotten him worldwide recognition.
In 1980, he began painting images of whales and dolphins — the subjects of what is perhaps his most recognizable work — after moving to Maui.
He was a featured artist at the Marine Art Expos and the Newport SeaFest by 1990, and the featured artist at the first Eco Expo in Los Angeles a year later.
In 2002, Kluchin’s art was showcased at the Miami Dolphins’ 30th Anniversary Super Bowl Champions party, as well as a number of other art events over the next seven years.
He is currently showcasing some of his collection at Forest Suites Resort. The gallery is open from 5-8 p.m. every weekend through Dec. 14.
“When I was younger, I thought chasing a dollar was what I wanted,” he said. “But when I got older, I realized that by continuing my art, the things I want come to me.”
What Kluchin really wants is to make the world a better place, he said. So he donates much of his time, art and money to nonprofit organizations and projects for good causes.
“These are the things I like to get involved with,” he said.
Decorating South Shore’s windows for the holidays has become one of Kluchin’s favorite pastimes, he said. It also ties in with advice he passes along to art students: “Don’t focus on one thing. Paint everything you love.”
“Tahoe’s a special place,” he said. “It has that kind of energy.”