There’s a lot of talk on social media about Wheeling. It often falls into two areas of discussion: the Wheeling that was and the Wheeling that will be. As a late Gen-X’er, I’m not quite old enough to remember the Wheeling that was. My mom bought me shoes twice a year at MH&M, and we shopped at Stone & Thomas downtown, so I caught faint echoes of the past. But I missed Wheeling’s heyday. When I eavesdrop on social media forums, I feel palpable sadness and regret. Some folks mourn the Wheeling that was.
The new iteration of our once-bustling city won’t be the same. It’ll be quite different. Art replaces industry. Modern replaces outdated. And, once you begin to get involved in the rebirth of an old town, you’ll start to hear enthusiasm replacing sorrow. Suddenly, Wheeling feels as though it’s on the precipice of a renaissance. Creativity and ingenuity are leading us forward.
Daniel Finsley, freelance artist and owner of Wheeling Threads, is one of those creative forces. A self-proclaimed Ohio-boy, he went to art school in Pittsburgh to develop his craft. In the years that followed, he moved back to Wheeling, then returned to Pittsburgh, then moved back to Wheeling again. Now, he says he’s here to stay.
Wheeling Threads is an apparel company, and, according to Daniel, got started when a chance to help a local organization came across his desk at Mail America, where he works in advertising. The organization held an internal design contest for T-shirts for the Soup Kitchen of Greater Wheeling. Daniel’s design — an image of iconic Wheeling figure Charles “Moondog” Waldrum — won. The T-shirts were printed and sold to raise money for the Soup Kitchen.
“I expected to sell maybe 75 shirts,” Daniel said. “It was 600. I was completely taken aback. I was almost asleep one night when it hit me: Why am I not doing something like this on a consistent basis? Developing art and apparel to help those in need?”
Daniel realized he could use his desire to create art and his desire to be of service to his community in concert. As a freelance artist, he’s worked around town with local businesses like East Wheeling Clay Works and Jeanne’s Bourbon Street BBQ. Currently, he’s working with Grow Ohio Valley on branding for the upcoming market at the Intermodal Center on Main Street. He’s thrilled to play a part in Wheeling’s development and hopes he can continue to spread his talents around.
“I’m super humbled that they chose me,” he said of the project. “There are a lot of agencies around here that do great work. I would like to take care of anybody who’s willing to utilize my services like that. All the while, I just really wanted to take a different approach to Wheeling’s traditional and vintage feel. And really kick around a modern twist with the art that we’re doing right now for the city and for the state.”
Perusing Wheeling Threads’ website, you’ll see the Moondog apparel, which continues to benefit the Soup Kitchen of Greater Wheeling (with Mr. Waldrum’s approval). You’ll also see Daniel’s “End Racism” design, the profits of which go to the YWCA. Currently, he’s looking for similar projects; the creative process means the most to him when the end product helps his those in need.
“Anybody can start a T-shirt business,” he said. “It’s not hard — I did it. What separates us from the others is the fact that we do aim to help others by taking basically nothing from the final sales and selling our art at the same time. That way you get something in return. Giving is always a great thing, but if you get something in return, I feel honestly that it’s always a positive. With the whole fundraising aspect, I feel it’s a genuine push for the city and the community, and I get to see my art out everywhere. That’s win-win for me.”
Wheeling Threads represents just a small slice of what Daniel envisions for his part in Wheeling’s revitalization. The apparel store itself isn’t what makes his efforts noteworthy. This idea was born of a desire to improve this town. It represents the best that the young creatives in Wheeling are bringing to life. He’s not here to better himself alone. He’s here to leave Wheeling in better shape and a kinder, more artistic place than he found it.
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“Art is the backbone of our community right now. Without that, there’s no room for growth,” he said.
I asked him what inspires his designs. Where did he come up with the McColloch’s Leap design, the Flatwoods Monster and Roney’s Point shirts, I wondered. He told me that the sparks often come from West Virginia’s rich tapestry of legends and history, tales we all know by heart.
“Inspiration lies with all the stories you grew up hearing,” he said. “I still remember going up Wheeling Hill and seeing the statues. My mom told me the story [of McColloch’s leap]. It’s story after story after story. The way that the city has been built — it’s an infinite amount of history. I’m into it. I like it. To be able to have the ability to take something so historical or traditional or vintage and put that spin on it and make it fresh and new … I feel like that’s what we as younger citizens of Wheeling — that’s exactly what we’re doing right now. In another decade or so it’s going to look significantly different. It’s just going to keep growing and growing. I think we’re going in the right direction. That’s my inspiration.” Daniel keeps a sketchbook with him and commits each new idea to paper as soon as it crops up, calling his artistic process “a natural kind of force.” When he has an idea, he’s compelled to bring it to fruition, as evidenced by his busy schedule and variety of designs.
Daniel would like to expand from an online enterprise to a brick-and-mortar location in the future. Like many new businesses, he’s hoping to participate in Show of Hands, Wheeling’s community-supported crowdfunding event. Past winners include Scrappy Pappy’s Recycling and Vigilant Books. Currently, he’s waiting to find out if Wheeling Threads makes it to the final four. He envisions a storefront in Centre Market with an artistic take. Moreover, his time in Pittsburgh influenced the scope of his plans here. He sees his business interacting with the artistic community, much the way a noteworthy screen printer on Pittsburgh’s south side, Commonwealth Press, has done.
“Right now, we’re just T-shirts. What I’d ultimately like to do is build it into something far larger, kind of like Commonwealth Press. They help with the community. They create art. They handle a lot of printing and such, a lot of popup shops. They’re in the thick of things. That’s ultimately where I see myself.”
Daniel often works with fellow designer Ashley Williams. She serves as a sounding board for his designs and a vital collaborator. Visitors to the website will see her work in the LaBelle shirt design, as well as the “Legend of the Ohio River catfish” shirt and the “Support Wheeling Artisans” shirt.
Daniel says he gets butterflies in his stomach when he thinks about Wheeling’s present, this time when creative influences abound and community involvement is on the rise. He cites extensive business networking possibilities, open doors and a camaraderie you’ll only find in a small town. Pittsburgh is a nice place to visit, he says, but Wheeling is home. He’s here with intention.
It’s true that the old Wheeling is indeed gone. Times have changed, as they always do. But let us not mourn the past, and let us not expect a repetitive future. Downtown will look different. The skyline will morph into unfamiliar shapes. Another Wheeling is rising — one with infinite possibilities — and people like Daniel Finsley are eager to contribute.
“What’s not to be excited about?” he asked me. “It’s a privilege to be a part of this stuff.”
• Laura Jackson Roberts is a freelance writer in Wheeling, W.Va. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University and writes about nature and the environment. Her work has recently appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Vandaleer, Animal, Matador Network, Defenestration, The Higgs Weldon and the Erma Bombeck humor site. Laura is the Northern Panhandle representative for West Virginia Writers, a blog editor for Literary Mama Magazine and a member of Ohio Valley Writers. She recently finished her first book of humor. Laura lives in Wheeling with her husband and their sons. Visit her online at www.laurajacksonroberts.com.