How A Potentially Lethal Wetsuit Allergy Turned Into Overnight Art Success - Stab Mag

Stab High Japan Presented By Monster Energy Will Be Broadcast Live On June 21st and June 22nd from 5 PM - 10 PM PDT

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

style // Jan 17, 2021
Words by Fredric Hamber
Reading Time: 4 minutes

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.

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

Already a member? Sign In

Want to join? Sign Up


Most Recent

Prediction: Moving The WSL Finals To Fiji Will Kill Off Two More Surfing Superstars

Is this JJF's time to collect his titles? We checked the stats.

Jun 17, 2024

Confirmed: Fiji To Host 2025 WSL Finals

Cloudbreak will remain on tour until 2026.

Jun 17, 2024

What’s The Secret To Powersurfing?

Taylor Knox, Kyuss King, and Jessi Miley-Dyer tackle a trio of questions in our third…

Jun 16, 2024

How To Win Stab High Japan, Presented By Monster Energy

A statistical analysis of the 493 airs attempted in previous chlorinated editions.

Jun 16, 2024

Watch: An Intimate Portrait Of The Wave, Village, And People At The End Of The Road

Oxbow’s ‘Children of Teahupo’o’ is playing exclusively on Stab Premium for the next two weeks. 

Jun 15, 2024

Fuck It, Run The Entire CT In Indo

A historic beginning to the Indonesian dry season.

Jun 14, 2024

Ferrari Boyz: Holly Wawn

"I've had 4, 5, maybe 6 cars... I'm a car dealer I reckon."

Jun 13, 2024

A Miscalculated Shallow Dive, Neck-First, Into The Waters Of Japanese Surfing

How is surfing different in the land of cherry blossoms?

Jun 13, 2024

How Has Ian Crane Made 4/5 Stab High Finals?

And who he's most afraid of competing against in Japan.

Jun 13, 2024

“I Haven’t Seen Anyone That Young And That Keen For Heavy Waves In A Decade” —Shane Dorian

Jacob Turner is 16 years old and trying to paddle tow sets at Teahupo'o...on his…

Jun 12, 2024

Long Read: 1,000 Ways To Die In Indonesia

18,000 islands of beautiful people, world-class waves, and danger around every corner.

Jun 11, 2024

Watch: Craig Anderson And Kaito Ohashi Find (Mostly) Empty Waves In Southeast Asia

Oh, and enter to win a grand worth of DB gear.

Jun 11, 2024

Brad Gerlach Rode A 600cc Motorbike Through Europe’s 1980’s Psychedelic Renaissance  

"Fuck London. Let’s just buy motorcycles tomorrow and drive to France, man."

Jun 11, 2024

Caroline Marks Goes Two-In-A-Row And John John Florence Wins First CT Event Since 2020 At The Surf City El Salvador Pro

Plus, we asked Chris Cote for a look into the commentary team's psyche and Griff…

Jun 9, 2024

Why Is Mavericks Core Getting Overrun By Yuppies?

And other questions from our audience — answered by Pete Mel, Mick Fanning, and Joel…

Jun 9, 2024

Everything Worth Remembering From 4 (Mostly) Forgettable Quarterfinals In El Salvador

Plus, what's the consensus on the Griff vs. João kerfluffle?

Jun 8, 2024

Wildcard Big-dogs Italo, Yago Pops The Cork, And Griffin Cops An Ambiguous Interference On Day 2 In El Salvador

"Honestly, that was a bad... uhh I mean, a tough call." - Strider

Jun 8, 2024

Let’s Talk About This Griffin Interference…

"Don't hate the player, hate the game." - Joao Chianca.

Jun 8, 2024