The heart-shaped pillow in a Facebook photo warned Josena Wilhelm that her friend had survived a medical condition.
The social media post mentioned a one-year anniversary.
“Immediately when I saw the heart pillow I knew she had had open heart surgery,” Wilhelm said of her discovery while browsing Facebook a few years ago.
Indeed, Wilhelm’s friend from Atlanta, Christiane Palpant, had undergone open-heart surgery in 2018 after a rare virus attacked her heart. Years earlier, Wilhelm — who lives in Riley with her husband, Beecher — was working for a bank in Terre Haute when she befriended Palpant, a traveling bank executive. Terre Haute was a regular stop for Palpant, whose work took her to every state again and again for 27 years.
This month, they reconnected when Palpant came to Terre Haute for a different reason — she’s on a long journey painting landscapes in all 50 states and interviewing women who have bravely overcome adversity.
The 2018 episode began with Palpant’s sister rushing her to the ER, where Christiane collapsed. Surgery followed. Palpant had to interrupt his busy banking work. To maintain a low heart rate, she spent the two years following the procedure in bed rest. Her parents traveled from Michigan to Atlanta to help care for her for over two months. Her brother came to see her.
“Those family ties are so dear,” Palpant said.
She returned to her job, but could not keep fit while working and had to stop again. It was difficult for Palpant. In her brother-in-law’s analogy, she had “a leaky roof”. Realizing this meant she was living a different future, “I started crying,” Palpant said.
She considered her options for a quieter life. Everything seemed boring to Palpant. Except one. “I could quit my job and take a Sprinter van and drive around the country painting all 50 states and interviewing women with brave stories,” the 52-year-old Michigan native said.
So she did. Palpant kicked off that adventure this spring, and earlier this month she revisited Terre Haute on a trek through Indiana — the 12th state she’s reached on her tour, so far. Palpant drove his custom Mercedes Sprinter van — think Amazon delivery vehicle — through Brown County on a Friday morning, painted the scenic area, then drove to Terre Haute to speak with Wilhelms’ brother. and Josena, John.
His tour had started with a drive along the Michigan-Florida route of Interstate 75. A trip to Maine and the Northeast would follow the Indiana stop of Palpant, then a detour west to the Plains States from the north and northwest. It will take a break this fall — Palpant has accepted a teaching position at Georgia State University in Atlanta — and will resume during the college Christmas break. The end result, once Palpant reaches all states, would be to publish a book of her paintings and interviews with women from Alabama to Wyoming.
Palpant received a lot of encouragement during the Terre Haute leg of his cross-country mission. Beecher Wilhelm knows she will achieve the goal.
“There are a lot of people who can talk. And there are people who do. And she’s an actress,” Beecher Wilhelm said, as he, Josena and John chatted with Palpant around a mini table. -kitchen in the back of his van. She dubbed the vehicle Millicent (Millie for short), a name tied to her art-focused family vacations and outings. The bicycle she uses daily hangs from the back. Her bed lowers at the touch of a button. Millie is essentially an efficient apartment on wheels, with plenty of room to paint.
Many of his pieces come into the light of day. “I am captivated by sunrises and sunsets,” Palpant said.
Diving into the artwork was not a decision out of left field. Art is in his family. His mother, Gail Palpant, is an acclaimed pastel artist based in Adrian, Mich. Gail retired as a commercial artist and last year gave Christiane her venerable easel. Gail nurtured Christiane’s interest in art, giving her daughter occasional lessons, including visiting museums during the holidays and pointing out details in the paintings they saw. Christiane’s great-great-grandfather, Michigan artist-farmer Horatio Shaw, has oil paintings in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Such family history helped Palpant following his open-heart surgery. Her doctors insisted that she maintain a low heart rate. Palpant needed something to stay active though.
“So I started painting,” she recalls.
Palpant completed 60 paintings in the first year. She posted images of her abstract landscapes, all in oil, on social media. A gallery in New York called, interviewed Palpant by Zoom and signed her. Since then, she has had eight exhibitions around the world.
She was well prepared to paint landscapes from coast to coast. The other half of her 50-state quest—collecting stories of courage from women—would be an eye-opener. Palpant aims to find women whose personal stories involve “the three Cs,” as she put it: courage, compassion, and creativity.
Some stories come out slowly during conversations. “Even the most successful women are so shy about telling their story,” Palpant said. But, “in the second half hour, we really attack the gold nuggets”. The women explain “feeling good about themselves”, developing their relationships, their family and their faith.
A woman survived a mass shooting and temporary paralysis. The woman is walking now. “She talked about faith, family, and intentionally connecting with your relationships,” Palpant recalled.
Each will be an item in Palpant’s book or another compilation of his journey. “I’m dreaming of what it’s going to be like when I wrap this all up at the end,” she said.
His hike, barely a quarter over, “didn’t go smoothly at all.” Equipment for his van has been hard to come by, due to supply chain issues. “That’s what Americans are going through,” she said.
One overriding positive aspect is already apparent, however. “I haven’t had a pain attack since the start of this trip,” Palpant said, smiling as the sun descended in the western sky over Terre Haute.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or [email protected]
To follow the journey…
• Christiane Palpant’s journey to paint landscapes and interview brave women in every state can be followed on her website at palpantart.com.