Lyn Hiner remembers everything about the piece of amber she found in the ocean near her family’s house in San Clemente. It was a quarter of an inch by half an inch around, and clear orange with dark spots in it. She stuck it in side right pocket of her cargo shorts along with the rocks collected that day by her two daughters, 9-year-old Ellie and 11-year-old Sarah.
The date was May 12, 2012, which Hiner won’t forget, either, because it wasn’t amber. It was a clump of white phosphorous, the kind used in WWII-era munitions. Three hours later, Hiner was at the kitchen counter, eating an orange and making plans for her husband Rob’s birthday dinner, when the clump dried out and self-ignited due to making contact with the air.
“It was like a flare gun,” says Hiner, who rolled around on the hardwood floor trying to extinguish the flames to no avail. “In the moment, you’re in utter shock. There’s no sense that can be made of that when you see white-hot flames coming out of your shorts. You can’t digest that.”
Hiner, 49, tells her story while seated on the floor in a storage room at the Riford Library, where she has brought some of the paintings inspired by this harrowing experience. They’ll be shown in the library’s The Color of Spring show, debuting March 11 and also including works from artists Erin Hanson and Anne Swan Moore.
Despite her story’s terrifying drama, there is a calmness about Hiner, a zen from telling it thousands of times and listening for the parts where lessons can be learned. “It’s crazy talking about it after so many years,” she says, “but it’s fascinating.”
Some of the phosphorous became phosphoric acid and dripped over both Hiner’s legs as Rob frantically pulled his wife’s shorts off. Every point of contact made by the liquid left a third-degree burn, and slapping at what she thought was a standard fire with her right hand is how Hiner got third-degree burns halfway to the bone on her right index finger.
Surgeons at Grossman Burn Center in Santa Ana grafted healthy leg skin onto her finger and legs. In the beginning, Hiner had no idea how long and painful her recovery would be.
“I was on Dilaudid, which I didn’t want to be on,” she says. “So about Day 4 or 5, I said, let’s wait a little longer before my next dose. I went an extra hour and my whole body started to shake. It was searing, burning chronic pain, many times worse than childbirth.” Six months into the year it took to heal, Hiner’s index finger hurt so bad, she asked surgeons to amputate it. “It was a hard year,” she says. “There are days when it’s still painful.”
Art imitates strife
Art was a hobby for Hiner beforehand — she attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and taught art privately at her home — but this freak accident became her cattle prod forward, toward becoming the working artist she once dreamed of becoming.
The former trade-show manager fashioned an outdoor studio out of a deck above the family garage that’s abuts a bluff. She started out representational, with realistic brushwork, then gravitated to abstract impressionism, using a knife to keep the acrylic details vague. (She calls her method “abstract expressionism,” she says, “because it’s more of an expression, because I want you to feel the same thing I was feeling when I was working.”)
Who’s to blame?
The running theory is that the phosphorous was military in origin. (Camp Pendleton is just south on the coastline.) “And because they spent 50 or 60 years doing all their stuff in the water, more than likely, there are munitions that aren’t fully spent and stuff seeps out,” Hiner says.
Hiner says she consulted an environmental lawyer about suing the military for pain and suffering.
“For us, it was a could-it-be-done, should-it-be-done, can-it-be-done situation,” she says. “And (my husband and I) both agreed that, no, it cannot be done. It would be a brutal thing to walk through, and they were denying it already because everything burned out.
“If it had been one of my kids,” she adds, “I probably would have had a different opinion about it, though.”
“Beauty From Ashes” is what Hiner calls her series, which numbers 150 pieces. (From the 75 that haven’t sold yet, she’ll display about 10 at the Riford show.) “It’s about the journey, the difficulty and the joy and the beauty that came from it,” she says.
“It was a painful journey, Hiner continues. “I wouldn’t have chosen it, but had I not gone through it, I know I would not be doing this.”
— The Color of Spring art show opens Sunday, March 11, at the La Jolla Riford Library, 7555 Draper Ave. An opening reception is scheduled the same day from 2-4 pm.