- Associated Press - Saturday, March 18, 2017

COLLINSVILLE, Ill. (AP) - Dawn and Rob Blum are back together after a six-month separation that had Rob serving in Kuwait with the Illinois Air National Guard.

Dawn counted the days until his return by taking a photo out their bedroom every day for 188 days.

“I wanted to mark the time some way, but I didn’t want to do it on a calendar,” she said. “That’s so conventional. I was trying to come up with something creative.”

Each photo shows a slight change in the yard with leaves turning fall colors, trees becoming bare and snow covering the ground at times.

Dawn, 42, of rural Collinsville, is an adjunct faculty member who teaches art Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville. She ending up turning the photos into a calendar-shaped collage with 188 thumbnails arranged in 28 rows.

The piece is called “Listless Passage.”

“My day-to-day was just going through the motions while Rob was gone,” Dawn said. “I had a routine with him, and so not to have him next to me was so different. Obviously, he’s a big part of my life.”

Today, the collage is displayed at Schmidt Art Center on campus as part of the SWIC Faculty Art Exhibition, which ran through Feb. 23. Ten artists submitted about 50 pieces, including sculptures, paintings, drawings and other artwork.

Rob, 39, returned from Kuwait on the day of the opening reception in January. That’s when he saw the collage.

“It’s cool,” he said. “I’m flattered that I was the inspiration for her art.”

While giving tours to visitors, Schmidt curator Nicole Dutton often stops in front of Dawn’s piece to talk about her artistic process and the love story behind it.

“I think a lot of people can relate, especially spouses of military personnel,” Nicole said. “They can identify with them being away.”

Rob is an electrician who works in facility management at Scott Air Force Base, on loan from his job with the Illinois Department of Transportation.

He served four years in the Air Force before joining the Illinois Air National Guard in 1999 and now is a master sergeant with its 126th Air Refueling Wing.

Rob’s father was an Army officer, so military travel is nothing new for him.

“I spent time in California and Colorado when I was growing up,” he said. “From ninth to 11th grade, I was in Germany. I graduated high school in New Jersey. Most of my family is in Oregon and Washington.”

Rob met Dawn, a Collinsville native, in 1999 through friends at the Dandy Inn in Fairview Heights, but they didn’t start dating for more than 10 years.

Rob got married and had a daughter, Taylor, now 16. Dawn was rearing her own daughter, Hailey, 24. Rob had short tours of duty in Kuwait after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

The couple ran into each other again in 2009 in the ice-cream section of Shop ‘n Save and began hanging out, first over sushi at Shogun Japanese restaurant in Fairview Heights.

“It wasn’t anything official for about a year,” Dawn said. “I was telling everybody, ‘He’s not my boyfriend.’ I was so caught up with school. I wasn’t ready.”

But when Rob and Dawn finally fell in love, they fell hard.

He moved into her house, a 1958 brick ranch built by her great-grandfather, and promptly began helping her to modernize and double its size.

Rob has just been a godsend for our family,” said Dawn’s sister, Darla Schuck, 40, of Collinsville, who also helped with renovation. “He’s handy, and he’s so patient.”

Rob showed that he also had a creative side with his marriage proposal.

Step 1 was asking Dawn’s former metalsmithing teacher to make her engagement ring. Step 2 was plotting with the curator at Fontbonne University Gallery of Art in St. Louis, where Dawn served as exhibit photographer.

On Jan. 18, 2014, Rob put the ring under glass, as if it were a piece of artwork. Dawn was taking photos when he removed the glass and dropped down on one knee.

“We got married two weeks later,” he said.

They decided against an expensive wedding, spending the money on home improvements instead. A friend officiated a quick ceremony at the Fontbonne gallery, then Rob and Dawn went to eat at a bar and grill in Clayton, Mo.

“They are just so darn cute and in love,” sister Darla said. “Honestly, it’s not fake. It’s the real thing.”

Dawn, who earned a master’s at Fontbonne, has been teaching at SWIC for 12 years. She was not too happy in July, when Rob’s Guard unit was activated to serve in the Middle East.

“Devastated may be too strong a word,” she said. “I was disappointed and not looking forward to it at all. We had been separated for three weeks before, but six months just seemed daunting.”

Dawn’s only comfort was knowing Rob would be deployed near Kuwait International Airport instead of a less-stable area.

Despite the nine-hour time difference, the couple talked every day through Facebook Messenger, sometimes twice a day, for six months.

Dawn joined the YMCA to keep busy. She set up her camera on the dresser in their bedroom, pointed it out the window and simply pressed the shutter release once a day to take photos.

“I didn’t have a specific time of day,” she said. “That wasn’t important to me.”

What was important was getting her husband back, which happened. On Valentine’s Day, the Blums are planning a quiet dinner at home - unless they get the urge for a do-it-yourself project.

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Source: Belleville News-Democrat, http://bit.ly/2lWmgeb

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Information from: Belleville News-Democrat, http://www.bnd.com

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