Creating Meaningful Art in a Pandemic

Image Courtesy of Organization of American Historians

Image Courtesy of Organization of American Historians

Grace Mittleman, Staff Writer

As I’ve said previously, art is still happening whilst in a pandemic. I am proud to attend a school where that art is continuing to happen, despite all the challenges that have been thrown at us recently. I want to bring to your attention Dawson Atkin, a classmate of mine who is a junior majoring in composition.

Dawson is the compositional mind behind their debut album: Notes on Me and You. It is a visual album and has some theatrical qualities to it because of that. “We’re calling it both a ‘one-man musical’ and a ‘visual album’ in our marketing. It also resembles some kind of some cycle, but those are usually tied together more loosely than this is.” Dawson says of the work.

Notes on Me and You is essentially a theatrical song cycle telling a story of love, grief, and resistance from the perspective of a man dealing with his partner’s decline and death at the height of the AIDS crisis in the US.  The internal chronology of the visual album stretches from 1986 to 1992, touching on real events including the 1987 Lesbian and Gay March on Washington and the 1992 ACT UP Ashes Action. Songs are bracketed by historical footage and news articles to help evoke and emphasize the period.

Describing the work, Dawson explains “[It’s] about what it means to lose someone, and what it means to be the one left to tell their story. It’s about a lot of other things too; love, protest, grief, burnout, and reconciliation, but that’s really the heart of it. We’re far enough out now that a lot of young queers, people my age, don’t remember the crisis or know much about it at all…I think the show balances grief and sadness with a political anger and outrage, which is something that isn’t touched on as much, but was a very important part of getting funds devoted to treatment to slow the epidemic.”

I asked Dawson, what inspired this? I originally thought they were inspired by the effects of the pandemic to compose this album, but the artistic work actually started to take full-swing pre-pandemic. “We started collaborating on a slightly different project last September, and it really became what it is around January, so pre-pandemic,” Dawson writes, “I actually took a UISA class last year about Queer Activist Art. Professor Jarvis suggested that, as a contract honors project, I should create music about queer history, since I’m a composer. I reached out to N.J. (the lyricist) to see if they were interested, and then we really ran with it.”

Notes on Me and You is the debut collaboration album of composer Dawson Atkin and lyricist N.J. Collay, and the debut performance album of singer Sam Vana. The creators wanted to act on a mutual interest in queer history to craft a narrative focusing on the personal side of the epidemic and what it means to live through historic times. The visual album is structured in three acts, with minimalist musical accompaniment and multiple styles including folk pop, singer-songwriter, and musical theater.

The themes of Notes on Me and You are extremely potent now, especially in the pandemic we’re facing.  The story of this one-man musical telling will reach the millions who have been wounded during this pandemic. Art that touches the soul is what the world really needs, especially now at the height of COVID-19. I guarantee that you will connect to Dawson’s and NJ’s musical telling the minute you start listening.

Note on Me and You will appear premiere online at the 2nd annual Hartford Fringe Festival on October 9th.  It will be available to watch October 9, 2020, through November 9, 2020, for $10 To book tickets, visit