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
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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