Mark Hogancamp had much of his life’s memories kicked and beaten out of him one night in 2000. But he remembers with crystal clarity the moment that he began to rebuild his life out a couple of discarded pieces of plywood:
It was a warm spring day in 2003. Three years earlier, he’d been beaten nearly to death by a bunch of thugs outside a bar near the tiny Eddyville house trailer that he called home, just outside Kingston in Ulster County. When he emerged from a coma after nine days, vast chunks of his memory were gone; his life was suddenly a mystery to him. The events, names and places of his past had become a tangle of blurred, mysterious images, unanchored to the narrative that had once been his life.
Hogancamp had to reconstruct those 40 years of his life based on a crazy-quilt of other people’s memories, shards of his own memory, a handful of photos, a video of his wedding and journals that he’d kept during those lost years. What he discovered about himself disturbed and frightened him.
He had been a drunk. Alcohol – vodka by the glassful – had ruled his life. His marriage had ended in divorce. He’d been homeless for a time, reduced to living in a tent near his hometown of Marlboro. He also discovered that he’d had a talent: He could draw. He had worked for eight years designing showrooms for what was then Staff Lighting in Highland.
His journals revealed an artist who favored bold pencil and ink drawings. Some were horror-show drawings of bloody vengeance: images of GIs bayoneting Nazis. There were also drawings of lurid, pulpy-looking images of women in spiked shoes and revealing lingerie, tearing into one another in “catfights.” Other drawings were of peaceful landscapes, sketched while he was taking it one day at a time in a 12-step program.
But what to make of it all? No matter how hard he tried, Hogancamp couldn’t put the puzzle pieces back together again. Even the arrest and eventual conviction of the thugs who had stolen his past did little to calm the oceanic rage that Hogancamp felt toward them, toward humanity in general and men in particular. Unable to work or drive or even walk steadily, feeling alone and bereft, he sat alone in his home and stared at a future that looked as murky to him as his past. He felt like he’d been kicked out of the human race.
Then, one spring day in 2003, while idly watching some workmen renovate a nearby house trailer, something moved Mark Hogancamp to pick up a piece of scrap plywood. Then another piece. Then a third. He stuck them together, forming what would become the cornerstone of a new life. He gave his emerging new world a name: Marwencol.
Hogancamp’s new world, a tiny World War II-era Belgian village made of scrap lumber and populated by Barbie-size dolls (and sometimes Barbie herself) became the imaginative place where Hogancamp finally felt welcomed and very much in control. The village is populated by his alter ego, Air Force captain “Hogie” Hogancamp, plus dozens of other foot-tall action figures of men and women whose adventures Hogancamp dreamed up, directed and documented in thousands of sequential photographs that recall Quentin Tarantino at his vengefully bloodiest and sexually kinkiest.
The story of Marwencol might have remained obscure, something enjoyed and known by only its creator, if not for a fortuitous meeting with a neighbor and fellow photographer who also happened to be the editor of a high-end arts-and-culture magazine. He featured Hogancamp’s Marwencol photos in his magazine, which was subsequently seen by a documentary filmmaker on the West Coast, who spent the better part of three years observing and recording Hogancamp’s story as he became the unlikeliest toast of the Manhattan art world. The resulting documentary, Marwencol, won for director Jeffrey Malmberg kudos from an array of prestigious newspapers, magazines and film sites.
Malmberg and Hogancamp have remained friends since the release of the film five years ago. Since then, Hogancamp has collaborated with Malmberg’s wife, Chris Shellen, a writer and former film development executive, to create Welcome to Marwencol, a glossy 278-page hardcover art/storybook about Hogancamp and his creation in nearly 600 full-color images. In addition to recounting his life story, the book provides an inside look at the creation of Marwencol and Hogancamp’s process, along with eight photo stories.
Hogancamp will discuss his book at Inquiring Mind in Saugerties on December 4 at 7 p.m. Details are sketchy, but bookstore-owner Brian Donoghue said last week that the book-signing will include a showing of the documentary.