THE BLOG
12/29/2015 08:33 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2016

Marwencol: Art vs. Reality -- Art Wins

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 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 five thugs outside a bar not far from the tiny house trailer he called home on the edge of the City of Kingston in upstate New York. When he emerged from a coma nine days later, vast chunks of his memory were gone; his life was a mystery to him. The events, names, people 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 40 years of his life based on a crazy quilt of other people's recollections, shards of his own memory, a handful of photos, a video of his wedding and journals 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. The marriage he'd seen celebrated in that video had ended in divorce. He'd been homeless for a time, reduced to living in a tent near his hometown in nearby Marlboro NY.

He also discovered he'd had a talent -- he could draw. He had worked for eight years before the beating designing showrooms for a local office of a German lighting company.

His journals revealed an artist who favored bold pencil and ink drawings. Some were horror-show drawings of bloody vengeance, images of G.I.s bayoneting Nazis. There were also lurid, pulpy-looking drawings of women in spiked shoes and revealing lingerie, tearing into one another in "cat fights."

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 he 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, that spring day in 2003, while idly watching 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.

Marwencol was a tiny World War II-era Belgian village made of scrap lumber that Hogancamp built with increasing detail, populated by a growing number of Barbie-sized dolls who enacted scenarios written by Hogancamp. Marwencol became the imaginative haven he'd never been able to find in the "real" world. He narratives he created he also documented in thousands of photographs. Chief among the dozens of foot-tall action figures he directed was Hogancamp's dashing alter ego, Air Force Capt. "Hoagie" Hogancamp, whose crew of fellow G.I.s fought against the predations of Nazi invaders. The thousands of sequential amazingly realistic photos Hogancamp shot recall Quentin Tarantino at his vengefully bloodiest and sexually kinkiest.

Marwencol might have remained obscure, something enjoyed and known by only its creator, if Hogancamp had not met a neighbor named Todd Lippy nearly a decade ago. Lippy is editor of Esopus magazine, a high-end arts-and-culture quarterly. He became fascinated with Hogancamp's photos. The resulting Esopus photo spread was subsequently seen by West Coast documentary filmmaker Jeffrey Malmberg, who was similarly struck by Hogancamp's creations. Malmberg spent the better part of three years commuting between coasts, observing and recording Hogancamp's story, as his notoriety as an artist spread and he became the unlikeliest toast of the Manhattan art world.

The resulting documentary, Marwencol, made a number of ten-best lists for Malmberg 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.

Hogancamp's story is an object lesson in the therapeutic effects of art-making. In a release describing the new book, Hogancamp said "Because everything is so far away from me, I figured I'd bring the world to me. So here's my little world, where I can make things happen, and I can create anything I want. Those guys don't know what they took from me. I figured I'll never get all those memories back, so I'll just make new ones."

His latest memories will be made not by him but
about him; a few months ago, Hollywood producer / director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forest Gump) signed on to direct an adaptation of Hogancamp's life story, with actor Steve Carrell set to play Hogancamp,

The desolate man who once felt like he had no place in the world will soon see the world he created in its stead become the sort of reality only Hollywood could dream up -- with lots of help from Hoagie Hogancamp and his men.