How A Potentially Lethal Wetsuit Allergy Turned Into Overnight Art Success - Stab Mag
632 Views
Story by Fredric Hamber

How A Potentially Lethal Wetsuit Allergy Turned Into Overnight Art Success

“I figured that if the old guys pre-70’s could be tough enough to surf through the winter and just stand by trash can fires afterwards, I should be able to do the same, even though these days it’s harder to find a good 50-gallon trash can fire.” – Mac Hillenbrand

Words by Fredric Hamber

You’re a surfer.

Imagine if a doctor told you that a newly-formed neoprene allergy was aggravating your dermatitis, and that as a result, you could no longer wear a wetsuit. Also, if you failed to heed this advice, you’d be at risk of anaphylactic shock.  

When Mac Hillenbrand received that diagnosis several years back, he accepted it as a challenge and resolved to surf without a wetsuit every day for a year.

“I figured that if the old guys pre-70’s could be tough enough to surf through the winter and just stand by trash can fires afterwards, I should be able to do the same, even though these days it’s harder to find a good 50-gallon trash can fire.”

Mac Hillenbrand surfing sans wetsuit.
Mac Hillenbrand, never not in boardshorts.

As a kid in San Diego, Hillenbrand bodyboarded and joined the Torrey Pines High School surf team. Later, after living in Northern California for several years, he returned back home and progressed to standup surfing, doing house painting to support his passion. Mac jaunted south of the border to get barreled in Southern Baja whenever possible. 

As Mac sanded cabinetry for house painting projects, he’d notice patterns in the wood and visualize ocean topography—an endearing perk of the job. But eventually, his livelihood turned against him. It was from house paint that Mac developed the allergy to chemicals present in both latex paint and neoprene wetsuits. A cruel fate, like the old commercial for Nasonex featuring a hapless bee who’s allergic to pollen. 

Upon his diagnosis, Mac went so far as to try an old, bright-red Billabong wetsuit from a garage sale that “had ample time since ’83 to leach out the allergen”, but it quickly ripped.

A great number of waves on wood.
We’ve never seen anything like this.

Despite this setback, Mac set a goal to surf every day. If he missed a day, he’d surf twice another day, with an hour break in between. His definition of “surfing” was entering and riding the water in the ocean in some way, and he kept strict track of himself.

For reference, the average winter water temp in San Diego, CA is in the high-50s (14 C).

For a different (and less physically debilitating) livelihood, Mac turned to art. The daydreamy reflections he’d had working with cabinetry became the seed of his new career. He started highlighting the “waves” he saw in pieces of wood with colored dye so that other people could see them too. He even found a hypoallergenic type of resin that allowed him to treat the wood without affecting his health. 

Waves on wood.
Peaks.

Hillenbrand’s art is divided into two buckets. The first series is Waves in the Wood, in which illusions of surf breaks are conjured out of the natural grain lines of a piece of wood. In his other series, Mac uses the wood inlay style called marquetry to depict views of a particular beach or section of coast. Matt Selman, producer of The Simpsons was an early customer of his Waves in the Wood.

The Old World skill of marquetry, where small—often tiny—pieces of wood are inlaid to create an overall decorative effect is what Hillenbrand uses for his series of beach portraits. “I like to think of it as creating paintings out of wood that don’t use any paint. All of the color work comes from me mixing dyes together.”

Shark on wood using marquetry techniques.
‘Marquetry’ is a new term for us. ‘Shark’ is not.

For his materials, Mac will suss out lumber yards the way another guy might do with fishing spots. 

When he talks about his art, Hillenbrand turns toward the metaphysical, to what he calls cosmic parallels between surf breaks and the way water moves slowly through a tree over time. “With the wood, you can see the grain in the tree wrapping around a point of tension: it needs to wrap around some oppositional force like a new branch. It’s the same physics involved with a reef.”

Split peak on wood.
Right or left?

Hillenbrand’s goal with his marquetry beach scenes is “to capture the soul of places that are meaningful,” either to him or to a client. Working from photos, he does custom commissions to illustrate in wood a favorite location, such as the large reef in Solana Beach known as Table Tops.

Mac’s latest balls-out move is launching an art gallery in the midst of a pandemic. Amber Waves of Grain opened in December on the Coast Highway in his hometown of Del Mar, San Diego County. Against one wall is a fragile ‘70s Caviar concept board (part Fish, part Egg) that he bought at a garage sale in Oceanside intending to create art on it, but then got curious, surfed it and nearly broke the thing in half. If there’s been a little too much talk lately about how the California Dream is dead, Hillenbrand’s gallery is calling bullshit.

A photo of Mac Hillenbrand's gallery.
Head over to Mac’s place in Del Mar.

Comments

Comments are a Stab Premium feature. Gotta join to talk shop.

Already a member? Sign In

Want to join? Sign Up

Advertisement

Most Recent

Would You Ride A Hemp Surfboard?

If so, here’s your chance to win a freebie from SOLID.

Oct 27, 2021

Should Championship Tour Surfers Compete On The Challenger Series?

Given the new wildcard rule, questions of morality loom. So we posed them to Kanoa…

Oct 27, 2021

8:24

Mikey February Won’t Leave Costa Rica Until His New Board Is Dialed

The proper setting for a talk with your shaper.

Oct 27, 2021

The Strange Intimacy Of An Almost Empty Lineup

Misc: Just the two of us.

Oct 26, 2021

Did Australian Surfing Just Get Its Mongrel Back?

Connor O'Leary may be the nicest guy in pro surfing, but his recent win revived…

Oct 26, 2021

Koa Smith Pleas For WSL 2022 Ultimate Surfer Wildcards After Zeke Lau Officially Qualifies Via CS

"The Ultimate Surfer wildcards are floating around up in the air, up for grabs."

Oct 26, 2021

Inside The Thai Factory Where Your Surfboard Might Have Been Made

“It sort of made me frightened for the Australian surfboard industry.”

Oct 25, 2021

13:03

“The Most Spooked Out I’ve Felt In A Very Long Time”

The Coopers Pacific Pale Ale Odyssey heads to the Indian Ocean.

Oct 25, 2021

Morgan Maassen Talks Creative Processes & The Production Of His Latest Work, ‘Goddesses’

A serene portrait of three Polynesian sisters pushing their surfing to the limits.

Oct 25, 2021

The Picasso Of Social Media Surf Skits Reveals The Tear-Shed Moment He Confronted Girlfriend With Outrageous Stab Highway Hairdo

Mckenzie Bowden had to quarantine in the doghouse.

Oct 25, 2021

9:15

Unlocked For All: Asher Pacey In ‘No Straight Lines’

He draws many lines — and, as promised, none of them are straight.

Oct 25, 2021

Are We Due For Another Perfect Wave Discovery?

Short answer: yeah.

Oct 24, 2021

8:44

Watch: Another Young Talent Springs Out Of Florianópolis

Wallace Vasco bleeds undeniable shades of Yago Dora.

Oct 23, 2021

The Challenger Series Rankings Just Got a Savage Shake-up

Brisa Hennessy and Connor O'Leary win the Quik/Roxy Pro France

Oct 23, 2021

What’s Your Favorite Song + Surf Section Pairing Of All Time?

An exercise in unabashed subjectivity.

Oct 23, 2021

If One Deceased Surfbrand Deserved Resuscitating It’s Most Certainly Gotcha

Surf Core Heritage not thought up in a focus group.

Oct 22, 2021

Stab Podcast: How Many Waves Counts As A Session?

Conspiracy theories, wildcard fiascos, and an inception-like surf sin.

Oct 22, 2021

‘Drive-Thru’ Team Buys Rights Back To Iconic Surf Series, Plans To Start Filming In November

Benji Weatherly explains how he, Donavon Frankenreiter, Greg Browning, and Taylor Steele plan to take…

Oct 22, 2021
Advertisement