By Steve Novotney
Her passion was initiated by “Snoopy,” believe it or not, but the eye-opening experience concerned nothing to do with watching the internationally famous cartoon canine in Charles Shultz’s creation, “Peanuts.”
When she was a first grader at Roosevelt Elementary in Steubenville, the now 34-year-old Erika Donaghy met an artist named Bob Villamagna, and he taught her how to draw, “Snoopy.”
“I haven’t drawn Snoopy in a while, but I can still draw Snoopy because of that one day in school,” she insisted. “His son, Jeremy, was in my class when I was in elementary school, and one day Bob came into our class and he taught us all how to draw Snoopy.
“I know that may seem sort of silly, but that was when I found the understanding of how the lines were related and how easy it could be once you stop and think about it. I guess something just sort of clicks about being a creative person,” she said. “And you know what? I can still draw Snoopy the way Bob taught me how because I did it over and over again. I loved it, and I still do.”
After she attended the Wells Performing Arts School of Choice and subsequently graduated from Steubenville High School in 1998, she immediately continued her education at West Liberty University where she collected degrees in both Music and Marketing in 2004. She is a gifted saxophone performer, mastering both the Alto and Soprano, and she also plays the trumpet, flute, and the piano.
Donaghy also is a wife and a mother. Her husband, Rob, is a native of Wheeling Island and is employed by Sysco Foods. Her children, Liam (3½) and Fiona (2), keep her busy beyond her duties as the chairwoman of the Wheeling Arts and Cultural Commission.
“I like try to make a difference, and I want to continue working in Wheeling because this is where my kids are growing up. And being from Steubenville, I have seen what happens when people do not make those efforts. I would never want to see that happen to a community that I want to live in,” she said. “Nobody will want to come to work, no matter how many jobs we have, if everything looks awful, if everyone is downtrodden, and if everything is falling apart.
“People can live anywhere, if you really think about it,” Donaghy explained. “Are you going to move to a city that has been revitalized and has great culture, or are you going to move to a city that has nothing going on? I think we know the answer to that question.”
Painful – Yet Necessary – Steps
Donaghy attends as many functions as she can despite the limitations imposed on her by Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a subtype of muscular dystrophy that is currently incurable. At times, she wears leg braces that reach up to her knees, and she often uses a cane. In fact, she does not recall a day during her life when she could walk without pain.
“When the cane came into my life, I saw a lot of stares, and people talk to you funny. It’s amazing to me,” she said. “But my brain is still here.
“I don’t let it stop me. Why should it?” she asked. “If, 10 years from now I’m in a wheelchair, why should that matter? It may mean it might make it harder to get to places, but just because it’s harder, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I’ve gone through too much in my life to give much of a care to how other people think.”
When it comes to Wheeling, though, Donaghy promotes and defends the “Friendly City” when conversations take place in public or on social media platforms. She attends two meetings per month in an effort to network with any local citizens who wish to be involved. The Wheeling Arts and Cultural Commission meets at 5:30 p.m. in the City Manager’s Office on the second Tuesday of each month, and the Arts Round Table gathers at 6:30 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday at the Wheeling Artisan Center.
“Maybe I shouldn’t open my big mouth as much as I do, but I am passionate about it. I’m not someone who grew up here, so I’m not trying to break away from Mom and Dad or break away from the ‘Old Guard.’ I came to Wheeling because I saw its value as a community,” Donaghy explained. “And I find it offensive when negative people say things that are uneducated about this city.
“If you walk outside your door and make an effort, then I think those people would start to see things a lot differently. What’s possible? Anything that people get up off their butts and do,” she said. “People have to have passion because that’s when they go get something positive accomplished. I don’t think there is a barrier besides laziness and apathy.”
Donaghy has provided an example of the needed effort by coordinating the annual Arts Fest in downtown Wheeling the past four years. The Fifth Annual Wheeling Arts Fest is scheduled for June 20, 2015, and she predicted the event would continue to expand despite several challenges. “I don’t see why the Arts Fest cannot continue growing like it has each year since it started, but that growth is contingent on finding the talent, getting the word out, and funding,” she explained. “And we are out there pounding the pavement to include as many people as we can.
“We have every form of arts that exists in Wheeling today: Architectural, culinary, visual, performing arts, dance, and we have the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra. That’s still incredible to me because of the size of our city and because of the level of talent on the Capitol Theatre stage.”
Confronting the Challenges
The members of the Arts and Cultural Commission have orchestrated several beautification projects, including the enhancements of several of Wheeling’s “gateways.” Future plans, Donaghy explained, involve the Mount Wood Overlook atop Wheeling Hill and a plethora of storefronts in the downtown District. The impending projects will involve artworks never seen before in Wheeling.
“We are going to do something with the Mount Wood Overlook, and we are examining the use of moss painting,” she said. “We want to help bring that area back to being a destination for local residents and our visitors because the views from there are outstanding.
“Some of the overgrowth will be eliminated thanks to the cooperation from the City of Wheeling, and we are examining the possibilities for it so it can be much more useful to the community than it is now,” Donaghy continued. “That’s what this is about. The culture that is already here is what we are building on. You take what you have and you reform it, whether it’s a building or an old program that went away because people lost interest because there weren’t enough people supporting and pushing it.”
She is not afraid to nudge, and she is not afraid to shove. Donaghy views the fact she is not a Wheeling native as a positive when it comes to battling for her adopted community. “The way I see it, we have wonderful organizations like Oglebay Insitute and everything they offer this community at the Stifel Arts Center and the Towngate Theatre,” she continued.
“Plus, we have some incredible writers in our community, and the poet laureate of West Virginia (Marc Harshman) lives right here in Wheeling. That’s a big deal,” Donaghy said. “I guess I don’t have the fears that some native people have because when I hear an idea has failed before, my reaction is, ‘So what? Maybe there wasn’t enough of an effort put into it the last time. Maybe that means that I am a little naïve, but I believe we have a solid foundation thanks to the people before us who created what we still have today. Instead of allowing that solid foundation to be knocked down, I say we build upon it.”