After a Violent Attack, an Artist Turned His Inner Turmoil into an Elaborate Fantasy World
One of Mark Hogancamp’s best-known photographs is an action shot of two soldiers in a war zone. One is crouched, running, boots sinking into the wet earth, canvas fatigues splattered with mud. Slung over his back is an injured comrade, his legs hanging limp, head turned towards the out-of-frame enemy behind them. His mouth is wrenched open in a furious cry as he fires his service pistol. It’s a picture of risk, courageousness, the will to live. It’s vivid, heartrending, intense.
Hogancamp is a war photographer, but the war is his own. The soldiers in this photograph, entitled Rescuing the Major (2006), are expertly customized, 12-inch-tall action figures. Their wives are Barbies. In their free time, they ogle sassy magazine pin-ups the size of postage stamps and drink from plastic beer bottles no bigger than thumbtacks. The war they’re fighting is in a one-sixth-scale world entirely of Hogancamp’s creation. It’s called Marwencol.
In April 2000, outside a bar in Kingston, New York, Hogancamp was nearly beaten to death by five other bar patrons. His face required reconstruction. He spent nine days in a coma. Recovering from the attack, he learned again, at age 38, how to eat, speak, walk, and write. His memories came back as single frames without context as he pieced together his previous life as a Navy vet, a divorcé, a raging alcoholic, and a gifted illustrator. But after his injuries, his hands were too shaky to draw. He sought, at the local hobby shop, other means of self-guided art therapy.
Photo by Janet Hicks. © Janet Hicks.
The path to recovery became an exercise in elaborate fantasy, as Hogancamp sought solace in a small Belgian village sprung entirely from his imagination. It seemed deserted, but as Hogancamp walked through the empty streets, beautiful women began to emerge. The Nazis’ Waffen-SS had murdered every last man, but they had hidden and survived. Hogancamp—or, at least, his 1-foot-tall, plastic avatar—stayed and happily made his home with the 27 exotic women of Marwencol.
In his fictional world, the women gave him a building, which he turned into a bar: the Ruined Stocking, the only catfight bar in Belgium. (So-called catfights were actually staged to entertain passersthrough—Germans, Americans; soldiers and vagabonds of all nationalities—in the throes of World War II.) In Jeff Malmberg’s moving 2010 documentary Marwencol, Hogancamp explains that in his town, everyone gets along. No one is against each other. It doesn’t matter what clothing anyone wears. In his town, Hogancamp’s fantasy girlfriend marries him in a beautiful ceremony before the corpses of hanged Nazis. His mom bartends.
Now, nearly 20 years later, Marwencol’s characters are still living out life-or-death dramas, drinking, smoking, being hung or decapitated, finding love, making love, even playing with their own small-scale action figures. Complex dramas unfold, as if the first-season finale of Big Little Lies were mashed up with the basement tavern scene from Inglourious Basterds. Hogancamp poses and photographs climactic moments, preserving the events of the town frame by frame.
In the early 2000s, he was pulling the soldiers’ tiny model Jeep along roadsides near Kingston’s Rondout—in order to weather the tires and make them look more authentic—when a photographer approached him. Thus, his “discovery”: The photographer led Hogancamp to a spot in Esopus magazine in 2005, which begot a show at New York’s White Columns in 2006. Other exhibitions followed.
And Hogancamp’s almost mythic story will soon find much wider audiences. Inspired by Malmberg’s documentary, Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis (the “Back to the Future” trilogy; Forrest Gump) has turned the artist’s biography into a narrative feature, Welcome to Marwen, debuting in late December. Steve Carell is Hogancamp; Leslie Mann, Janelle Monaé, and Diane Kruger are among his posse of temptresses, commandos, and sweethearts.
Acclaim was never Hogancamp’s goal. His photographs sprung not from his desire to share his world with others, but from a private process of healing. In the early days, he didn’t even keep his negatives. Through the building of Marwencol, he worked to regain his patience, physical dexterity, and the ability to multitask. He was training his hands, he says, to be a little calmer.
“Storytelling and mythmaking are primary human activities, a fundamental way of making sense of our world,” wrote Oliver Sacks in River of Consciousness, his posthumous 2017 book of essays about creativity and the brain. Children intrinsically play, often with dolls or miniature replicas of objects from the real world, inventing new stories and reenacting old ones. Perhaps the creation of Marwencol was always just a chronological step—a child-like phase—in Hogancamp’s developmental recovery. But the sophisticated portrayals of human nature in his dioramas—not to mention the composition and tactical depth of field in his photos—are not child’s play.
Another possibility is that Hogancamp has always been some sort of extraordinary artistic talent, the strength of his expression stifled by his alcoholism, or derailed by working in the wrong medium. Or maybe, after the attack and ensuing amnesia, something changed.
He would not be the first to develop superpowers of creativity following brain damage. For The New Yorker, Sacks wrote of an orthopedic surgeon in Oneonta, New York, who, in 1994, was struck by lightning and thereafter taught himself how to play classical piano, composing stunning sonatas. Then there was the 10-year-old who, after being hit in the head by a baseball, developed Rainman-level math abilities. In fact, there are a whole number of sudden savants—subjects of much study and debate for neurologists—who develop dementia or sustain cranial injuries and become accomplished painters, or remarkable musicians, or academic wonders. Apparently, if you damage the right part of the brain, creativity (and creative skill) can spark and thrive in shocking ways. It’s known as “sudden savant syndrome.”
Did a syndrome lead Mark Hogancamp to create something that has taken the art world by storm? That led Jerry Saltz, in The Village Voice in 2006, to laud Hogancamp’s “uncanny feel for body language, psychology and stage direction”?
Indeed, Hogancamp’s works are so uncanny that they have been mistaken for the real thing. In the spring of 2015, conservative Oregonian Facebook user Terry Coffey went so far as to post a photograph with the following comment: “As I see post after post about Bruce Jenner’s transition to a woman, and I hear words like bravery, heroism, and courage, just thought I’d remind us all what real American courage, heroism, and bravery looks like.”
The photograph was the aforementioned Rescuing the Major. The irony in Coffey’s mistake is that the assault that spurred Hogancamp to create the soldiers’ world was a hate crime itself. Hogancamp, who keeps a stash of hundreds of pairs of women’s shoes in his home, revealed in conversation at the bar, on the night of his attack, that he felt most comfortable in ladies’ pantyhose and high-heeled shoes. His drinking buddies couldn’t handle it. After recovering from his injuries, Hogancamp no longer had any desire to drink. But wearing heels still makes the artist feel like himself—which, of course, makes the characteristic spirit of non-discrimination in his fictional town all the more poignant.
From a glance at the Welcome to Marwen trailer—in which no high heels are mentioned—film critics are getting the sense that the new film will leave the cross-dressing aside and focus on coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, a different, yet key part of Hogancamp’s story. The film also digs into the attack and the ensuing trial, the experience of Hogancamp having to face his attackers in court, and how the anxiety and pressure of that confrontation plays out, in miniature.
Despite his renown, Hogancamp’s work is represented by just one gallery, on the ground floor of a three-story brick building built in the 1790s down the road from his Kingston, New York, home—and not five miles from the bar where he was attacked. In early December, Kingston’s One Mile Gallery will bring work spanning the history of Marwencol to this year’s SCOPE Miami Beach. Just a few weeks later, Welcome to Marwen arrives on the big screen, inviting more new visitors to a very remarkable little town.
Corrections: A previous version of this article misspelled Steve Carell’s last name as Carrell; Hogancamp’s work “Rescuing the Major” was made in 2006, not 2004; and Carell’s character in Welcome to Marwen (2018) does not have an amputated leg. The text has been updated to reflect these changes.