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Finding Marwencol, Belgium, in the Hudson River Valley

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The story of Mark Hogancamp is one of heartbreak and inspiration. Mark Hogancamp, a Hudson Valley native from Kingston, New York, is the creator of the small, ever-changing art installation known as Marwencol, located in Kingston. On April 8, 2000, Hogancamp was brutally beaten by a group of young men outside of a local bar after he told the group of men that he was a cross dresser and enjoys wearing women’s shoes. The assault resulted in Hogancamp being in a coma for nine days and hospitalized for 40 days, with doctors saying that he was lucky to be alive. When his insurance could no longer cover his hospital expenses or therapy, Hogancamp was discharged from the hospital and diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury that left him with zero memory of his life prior to the attack. In order to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and the loss of memory, Hogancamp used his artistic abilities to build Marwencol.

Marwencol portrays a small, war-torn Belgian town during World War II, defended from invading Nazi forces by several dolls, including one doll named Captain Hogie, who represents Hogancamp’s fantasized braver avatar of himself. While Hogancamp struggled in the aftermath of the attack and believed he was lonely and weak, Captain Hogie leads a group of female dolls in defending tiny Marwencol from the Nazi juggernaut. Captain Hogie portrays a strong leader and confident individual able to stand up to the Nazis, who represent Hogancamp’s attackers. The other female dolls represent his close friends who stuck by his side through his rehabilitation. The Nazi invaders regularly meet their doom at the hands of Marwencol’s defenders, allowing the small town to represent a sanctuary in which Hogancamp could recover peacefully from the attack and the traumatic memories stemming from it.

Mark Hogancamp’s work was discovered by professional photographer David Naugle in the fall of 2005, who documented Hogancamp’s work and creativity and shared his story with Esopus magazine. Hogancamp’s work was eventually shared publicly at the White Columns art gallery in June of 2006 and thus began Hogancamp rise to prominence in the art and photography industry. In 2010, a documentary produced by Jeff Malmberg named Marwencol was released. It tells the story about the attack that nearly ended Hogancamp’s life and his inspirational and beautiful coping mechanism portrayed through the town of Marwencol. The documentary received critical acclaim and brought visitors from around the Hudson Valley and New York State to Hogancamp’s doorstep, all wanting to catch a glimpse inside Hogancamp’s imagination and learn more about his story and the town of Marwencol.

PBS interviewed Malmberg in 2011.

The documentary is cited by famous director Robert Zemeckis (known for his production of Forrest Gump) as his inspiration to begin work on a film-adaptation of Mark Hogancamp’s story. The result was a movie titled Welcome to Marwen starring Steve Carell as Mark Hogancamp and Captain Hogie. The film received mixed reviews, but most were unfortunately negative. Additionally, the film was a box office bomb. Many critics were disappointed by the film’s poor scripting and disjointed storytelling. While the actors, especially Carell, overall received praise for their performances, the movie’s lack of inspirational impact and subpar storytelling caused it to be largely overlooked and unsuccessful at the box office.

Despite the failures of Welcome to Marwen, Mark Hogancamp’s story of recovery and success in the face of tragedy remains inspirational and timeless. Hogancamp is now a successful photographer and continues his work on Marwencol, nearly two decades after the project began. His use of imagination as a coping mechanism has inspired others across the country. And while his attackers may have stripped him of his past memories and past life, Hogancamp’s efforts portray how love and hope proved impossible for his attackers and a cruel world to take away. Since his first public art showing at the White Columns in New York City in 2006, Hogancamp’s work has been exhibited publicly in multiple galleries, including the Allouche Gallery, NY and the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art in New Paltz, NY. Today, his work is represented by the One Mile Gallery in Kingston, NY.

– James O’Donnell, Marist ’19

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