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Melvin R. Laird Exceptional Artist Award

This award annually recognizes and rewards an exceptional graduating UWSP student in performing or visual arts by providing a $5,000 investment in his or her potential to become a successful leading artist in his or her field. Established by the Hon. Melvin R. Laird and members of the Laird Endowment Advisory Board, the award serves as a continued commitment to the Laird Art Leadership program associated with Laird Leadership Day. The Hon. Melvin R. Laird was the former U.S. Secretary of Defense under President Nixon and Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District representative. 

Melvin R. Laird 2024 Exceptional Artist Award Recipient 

Arista Detter

Arista Detter with Dean Valerie Cisler and Chancellor Thomas Gibson.

The 2024 recipient of the Melvin R. Laird Exceptional Artist Award is Arista Detter.  Arista graduated in Spring ’24 with a BFA Musical Theatre and BA Dance double major. During her time at UWSP, she invested in her craft in a multitude of ways. Whether it was modern dance, stage combat, or playwriting, the information gleaned through a deep investment in the body, mind, and spirit have found a place in Arista’s creative work. Outside of the classroom, she has presented her own original work in staged readings, a fringe festival, dance concerts, theater shows/musicals, and outside artistic projects.

Arista is excited to move to New York City this upcoming summer and to continue her work as a NYC-based artist. With this award, she will embark on the journey of opening her first NYC show! She will be creating a large ensemble piece that continues her investigation of ideas initiated during her time at UWSP. Arista is invested in combining concert dance with more traditional theatrical scenes to elevate the journey of the piece, while also inviting the audience to engage in the work through multiple points of entry. Currently titled “Eden,” this piece will explore themes centering humanity and the range from divinity and sin. Congratulations, Arista!

Melvin R. Laird 2023 Exceptional Artist Award Recipient 

Jessie Crandall

We are excited to announce the 2023 recipient of the Melvin R. Laird Exceptional Artist Award:  Jessie Crandall.  Jessie is a major in Jazz Studies playing the double bass.  Hailing from De Pere, Wisconsin Jessie brings her enthusiasm into everything she pursues.  Her high academic success combined with her dedication to become a professional jazz bassist speaks volumes to her character.  She is active in many student groups and planning to graduate in 3.5 years this December.  She is excited to start applying to graduate schools to continue her pursuit to improve technical and collaborative skills that will bring her closer to her goal; a successful playing and recording career that will last a lifetime.  Her truest objective is to simply play.  Congratulations, Jessie!

Previous Recipients

We are delighted to announce the 2022 recipient of the Melvin R. Laird Exceptional Artist Award: Jax Emmel. During her time on campus, Jax has performed in multiple student and faculty directed dance concerts and her original choreography “I Long for a Place…” was selected to represent UWSP at the American College Dance Association Conference this spring. She has served in leadership roles as President of the National Dance Education Organization – UWSP Student Chapter and as a board member for Players Artistic Alliance. Following graduation, Jax plans to apprentice with Water Street Dance Milwaukee and will use support from the Laird award to develop and present an original work exploring the perception of women in society. In her pursuit of a career as performer and choreographer, she aims to elevate the visibility of trans perspectives and foster a more inclusive community in the professional dance world. Congratulations, Jax!

Congratulations to 2021 recipient of the Melvin R. Laird Exceptional Artist Award: Emily Rahn.  Following student teaching, Emily will complete her Bachelor of Music degree with a double major in Instrumental Education and Trumpet Performance. During the challenges of the past year, Emily rediscovered her love of drawing with music — creating characters inspired by pieces she performs on the trumpet. In her plans to pursue a career as a classical trumpet player and trumpet professor, she aims to create unique, multi-sensory performances by collaborating with other artists and combining time-lapse drawing with classical performances. The Laird Exceptional Artist Award will support her professional development and experimentation as not only a musician and educator, but an innovative multi-media artist. Congratulations, Emily!

Hannah Clark

Congratulations to 2020 recipient of the Melvin R. Laird Exceptional Artist Award: Hannah Clark. With a long-term goal to work as a freelance designer for regional theatre, Hannah just completed her BA in Drama at UWSP and will begin Northwestern University’s MFA program in stage design this fall. Responding to the COVID-19 crisis, Hannah began to re-imagine how she might pursue design while productions have been halted. With support from the Laird award, she is undertaking a project to meld theatre history and modern design in creating and sharing multiple staging interpretations for Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In addition to bolstering her portfolio with new work in preparation for graduate school, the project will serve as an educational resource for students studying theatre design. Congratulations, Hannah!


Alyssa Eiden 

Alyssa is from Amherst, Wisconsin and graduated with her Bachelor of Music in both Choral and General Music Education along with a Bachelor of Music degree in Vocal Performance. During her time at UWSP, Alyssa has enjoyed masterclasses and workshops including La Musica Italia Opera Program and has performed in solo recitals and as part of Kids from Wisconsin, Jazz Central Voices Ensemble, and UWSP’s Concert Choir, Choral Union, Women’s Choir, and Chamber Singers. This June, Alyssa will perform the role of Laurie in Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land at the American Gothic Performing Arts Festival in Eldon, Iowa. Alyssa began studying Suzuki violin as a child and aims to blend her appreciation of the Suzuki method with her love of vocal performance to become a K-12 music teacher as well as a certified Suzuki Voice Teacher. The Laird award will help support Alyssa’s tuition for immersive study in Suzuki Voice methods along with professional recording for her portfolio and graduate school auditions. Congratulations, Alyssa!

Anja completed her Master of Music in Vocal Performance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she is studied with Professor Mimmi Fulmer. She also held the leading role of Poppea in the opera L’incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi for University of Wisconsin-Madison Opera, directed by David Ronis. Anja performed in the UW Opera Props Showcase Concert and was chosen to work with Metropolitan Opera tenor Kyle Ketelson in a masterclass. In spring 2019, Anja performed with the Madison Opera in their spring production of Dvorak’s Rusalka —”time to learn some Czech!”

Timothy Zeszutek

Tim is currently working as a Graphic and Pre Press Designer for CLI in Plover, as he saves money for graduate school. He is also doing freelance graphic design work, including a project for Point Brewery that resulted in Tim’s design featured on a longboard skateboard.

When he is not working on graphic design projects, he is taking commissions for painting. His work can be seen at

Abigail Herold

Abby was accepted into Upright Citizen’s Brigades (UCB) Academy program—an audition-only process meant for the best of the best students in improvisation. She is also involved in their sketch comedy program and is interning with UCB as well. When not at UCB, she is busy auditioning for TV and theatre and working on final editing for her web series.

Abby will be going into rehearsals for a sketch comedy show as well as participating in Actor Therapy, a musical theatre laboratory class taught by Tony Award-winner Lindsay Mendez and Ryan Scott-Oliver.

Abby continues to work as an assistant for Florence D’Lee custom couture for drag queens. She is excited to note that something she made was featured in Vogue Germany.

Emily Reeves

Emily wrapped up her cruise ship performance contract and, unfortunately, suffered an injury to her hip that required surgery. Currently back in New York, Emily auditions frequently and signed with talent agent Dulcina Eisen Associates this past spring. When not auditioning, she has been trying to travel, including an October trip to Copenhagen.

Bennett Heinz

Bennett continues to work for Schilke Music Products, where he plays key roles across a number of areas—Bennett serves as production manager for the Greenhoe Trombones line, leads educational tours of the factory and the process of building brass instruments, works with customers in the showroom to help fit them to the right instrument or mouthpiece, travels to trade shows and events (including trips to Germany and Taiwan), facilitates parts/repair requests, and numerous other “hands on” tasks in the factory.

Bennett also organizes “Schilke Day” events at regional universities, including the University of Minnesota Duluth (where former UWSP trumpet professor and Music Department Chair Dr. Bob Kase serves the Dean of the School of Music) and UWSP.

Alongside his “day job,” Bennett still practices trumpet every day and works as a freelance musician in Chicago. He recently worked with jazz big band Heisenberg Uncertaintly Players to perform new arrangements of all of the music for the Beatle’s “Abbey Road” album.

Bennett shared, “Although my current career path is not what I originally intended on, I truly love what I do and I honestly don’t think I’d be where I am with the company had it not been for the Laird Award and using it as an opportunity to connect with Schilke Music Products.”

Alexandria Mueller 

Alex recently composed music for three short films and a feature, as well as created demos for sound sets by Matt Bowdler (The Unfinished). These products are used regularly in Hollywood movies, AAA games and hit TV shows around the world. She spent the last year in a mentorship with jazz violinist Christian Howes for music business and taught a contracts and licensing course at the Institute of Production and Recording.

She continues to play viola with her quartet, Boom Island String Quartet, and the Saint Paul Civic Symphony, along with various gigs and recording sessions. Alex maintains her connection to UWSP by serving on the Board of Directors for Very Young Composers of Central Wisconsin (her 6th year).

jelinekKelly Jelinek 

Kelly continues to create custom, commissioned faux taxidermy art pieces through her business, Little Stag Studio. This past year, she was thrilled to purchase a “turn-of-the-century” fixer-upper and has been jumping from one old-house project to the next.

Andrew Broomell
with John Laird 

Andy has continued working in the television industry, doing a mix of concept renderings for upcoming shows, and art directing shows which have filmed in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, and the Twin Cities. Currently he is working through the season three filming of NBC’s “World of Dance” at Universal Studios. He will also be loading in a broadcast set for BlizzCon 2018 (a convention for the gaming giant Blizzard Entertainment).

A highlight for Andy this past summer was spending a month in Spain, working again for Royal Caribbean Productions. In his role, he oversaw the installation of a brand new Escape Room onto one of their ships as it was dry-docked in Cádiz. Afterwards he spent a week touring the southern part of the country while practicing digital photography.

This fall, Andy is teaching in the graduate theatre program at UC-Irvine. “I love being able to pass on what I’ve learned to the next round of folks coming up into the entertainment industry.”