Twelve years ago, on April 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was relentlessly beaten outside of a bar in Kingston, New York. He spent nine days in a coma, recovering from physical trauma so severe that his own mother did not immediately recognize him. When he regained consciousness, all memory of his life up to that point was obliterated: Mark had been married once, served in the Navy, dealt with alcoholism and stints of homelessness, and struggled with gender dysphoria, but his map was eliminated in full by the beating. He was 38, relearning how to eat and walk and had neither the money nor the insurance to pay for proper physical and mental therapy.
Mark created a therapy of his own though, designing and building 1/6 scale model of a fictional World War II town named Marwencol. The town's name is a portmanteau of his own name and two women he liked, Wendy and Colleen. The town, its bar and its church, are all built out of scraps of plywood, and its population is made up of barbies and WWII action figures. He built himself right into the town, as a downed American pilot who stumbled upon the all-female Marwencol somewhere in Belgium.
The continual narrative that slowly began to take shape is touching and clearly helpful in nurturing the trauma Mark endured. The stories he designs embrace the kindness and nurturing of women, the cruelty and violence of men against each other. He slowly learned that at times he had been a cross dresser in his past life, when he discovered a room full of women's shoes in his house. His therapy through dolls was an escape from the outside world that continued to shun him.
But Mark not only played out elaborate storylines in his town. He carefully documented every aspect of the characters' lives there, using an old film camera with a broken light meter. The images contain blood-splatted snow and scenes between soldiers and their girlfriends at the bar, German invasions, stories of sacrifice and cruelty. The images are strangely compelling.
But after accumulating thousands of images and with interest from David Naugle, a local photographer who saw the tiny town while driving by, Mark Hogancamp ended up in the art world, still psychically and emotionally tender from the trauma he had endured. Since 1984 Mark had kept careful journals of his life, and drawn vivid drawings to accompany his thoughts. But the beating destroyed his ability to draw. In order to cope with the feeling of frustration, the desire for revenge, he played out his terrors and feelings in the town, and that catharsis is clearly revealed in his photographs. The images are stunningly realistic, and what had initially been a homegrown, bootstrap form of therapy was suddenly deigned "art" and shown in magazines. The sphere of interest for his work widened and he had the chance to have his own gallery showing in Manhattan, courtesy of several artists and art collectors.
Mark was forced to make a choice between protecting the intimacy and secrets of his town, or sharing them with the world he had avoided. He eventually had his art show, and it was not only well-attended, but he has received significant offers for his photographs. The crux of Hogancamp's touching art seems to be in the lack of irony that surrounds it. Artists and photgraphers who attended the gallery showing and saw his art in the magazines have discussed his ability to take an often sardonic or childish medium and imbue it with a moving sincerity. He plays with dolls out of a deep-seated, personal need, and his photographs reflect how his imagination and creativity function as a mode of therapy. He survived the loss of his memory and struggles in a quite literal war to maintain his humanity and self through his double life in Marwencol.