Leslie Cheek, Jr., played a significant role in the development of arts education at The College of William & Mary. Cheek came to Williamsburg after graduating from Yale with a degree in architecture in 1935. Discouraged by the lack of architectural work available due to the Depression, Cheek came to Williamsburg to paint landscapes. He quickly became acquainted with the curator of Colonial Williamsburg, James L. Cogar, and the then-recently inaugurated President of The College, John Stewart Bryan. Cogar, who had also studied at Yale, was also an instructor in the History Department at William & Mary. As part of his work for Colonial Williamsburg, Cogar was planning to take a semester off from teaching to travel to England. He suggested Cheek teach in his place and Cheek’s career at William & Mary began. Cheek focused his teaching on historical buildings and their role in society -- the photographic slides used in his lectures were the first used at William & Mary.
Cheek’s classes were immediately popular with students and his friendship with President Bryan grew as the two men discovered a common interest in arts education. Cheek proposed that William & Mary establish a Department of Fine Arts, making it one of the first schools in the South to do so. Bryan embraced the idea, noting that Thomas Jefferson had tried during the American Revolution to add an arts curriculum at William & Mary, but had failed. In 1937, Taliaferro Hall, then a dormitory, was converted into instructional space and became the first air-conditioned building in Williamsburg. At its dedication, Cheek hosted art patrons from all parts of Virginia to underscore his commitment to the relationship between arts and the community. The fledgling arts department at William & Mary offered instruction in sculpture, stage set design, architecture, painting, and drawing.
Cheek was a strong proponent of collaboration among the arts and sciences departments. This collaboration often manifested in stage productions that were considered a great asset to the Williamsburg community. Many of the sets were considered comparable in quality to those on Broadway, and with Cheek’s leadership, William & Mary gained a reputation as a superlative training ground for arts and theater professionals and faculty. Cheek worked tirelessly to bring nationally known artists to Williamsburg. In 1938, he persuaded Frank Lloyd Wright to visit the campus and to deliver a lecture in connection with a showing of his work borrowed from the Museum of Modern Art. Cheek also led the effort to bring Georgia O’Keeffe back to Williamsburg after thirty years away to receive an honorary degree and to open an exhibition of her work at The College. Shortly thereafter, The College received one of its artistic treasures, a Georgia O’Keeffe painting from Leslie Cheek’s friend and patron, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.
Another Cheek legacy at The College is the cherished Yule Log ceremony. The ceremony has its roots in elaborate Christmas parties that President Bryan hosted for the whole campus, with design and production assistance from Leslie Cheek. Cheek’s passion for landscaping also shines through in today’s campus environment.
The William & Mary years were important one to Leslie Cheek. During that period, Cheek was introduced to and became engaged to his wife, Mary Freeman. Cheek’s contribution to The College and to the Williamsburg cultural community began to receive national attention. In 1938, Cheek was recruited to lead the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Fine Arts Department at William & Mary remained and flourished, particularly in the post-war period. By 1968, the Andrews Fine Arts Building was opened to accommodate the ten faculty and 700 students enrollment in the fine arts classes.
President Bryan described Cheek’s contributions:
The peculiar value of Mr. Cheek’s work at the College of William & Mary has been in his perception of the irreplaceable importance of art in college life today. Not art only as a field for amateurs, but art as a field for intelligent and trained appreciation; art as a medium of self-expression and, above all, in the long years of leisure that lie ahead, art as a source of fuller culture, and as a stimulus to continuous growth.