One man’s war: mental illness and the intersection with art

Photo: Mark E. Hogancamp. Courtesy of The Cinema Guild. A medic rescues a wounded major after an ambush by the SS in this miniature creation by Mark E. Hogencamp. He created a 1/6 scale model of a World War II Belgian town as a way to deal with his mental illness. His pursuit is the subject of a new documentary, “Marwencol.”

A new documentary tells the story — or rather the true-life fantasy — of photographer Mark Hogancamp. It’s also a story about the human impact of lack of health insurance, mental illness and addiction on America’s at-risk populations. “Marwencol” is a tribute to the regenerative powers of art.

On April 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp went to a bar in his town of Kingston, New York. After being harassed inside, Hogancamp left, but was followed and attacked by five men who kicked and beat him without mercy. His face and brain were so severely damaged that Hogancamp remained in a coma for nine days.

Upon regaining consciousness, Hogancamp had to start from scratch-learning how to eat, talk and walk as if for the first time. Although he made fast progress in the first 40 days after his coma, his real challenge was only just beginning. After just over a month of therapy, Hogancamp was informed that because he was uninsured he was no longer eligible to receive further treatment.

Lack of insurance or under-insurance is a constant reality for people on the streets or at-risk of becoming homeless. For folks who are already homeless, the dangers of life on the street are compounded by a lack of access to proper care should they become sick or injured. According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC), 70 percent of homeless individuals are uninsured. Even beyond more extreme forms of poverty, lack of affordable health insurance remains one of the primary culprits in jeopardizing formerly-middle-class lives. As the NHCHC’s 2010 policy statement reveals, 62 percent of all bankruptcies last year were attributed to an unexpected medical emergency.

While Hogancamp doesn’t wind up on the street, his meager surroundings and the overdraft notices in his mailbox reveal that he is among that growing group of Americans for whom an unexpected illness or injury can be financially devastating.

In addition to illustrating the perils of the uninsured, “Marwencol” also speaks to the addiction issues that often plague at-risk communities. After being told he can no longer receive therapy at the hospital, Hogancamp moves home, where he explores his surroundings and interviews his friends to fill in the blanks regarding the person he used to be. While his old journals reveal that Hogancamp had been a talented comic-book-style illustrator, they also remind him that he had been a tormented alcoholic.

Alcoholism and mental disorders often go hand-in-hand. About half of all people diagnosed with some form of mental illness will also be dual-diagnosed as having a substance abuse problem. Likewise, half of all alcoholics are dual-diagnosed as suffering from a mental illness. Hogancamp’s personality difficulties most likely stem from his post-traumatic stress, his brain damage as well as his sometimes visible frustration and real rage at the circumstances of his life as the victim of such a senseless crime. However, it’s likely that anger has always been a problem for Hogancamp. His friends’ descriptions of his drinking days imply as much, and Mark’s hazy memories — coupled with the graphic, violent imagery in his old journals — point to the realization that his alcoholic tendencies may have always been accompanied by some form of mental illness.

Among those who are homeless, alcoholism often plays a role as both cause and effect. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an alcoholic becomes at risk for homelessness when a significant proportion of already-scant household income is spent on alcohol or other substances. Of course, it’s also difficult for a person who is barely getting by to properly focus on treatment and recovery. Once someone is homeless, alcohol and other substances become common coping strategies to manage the stress, danger and anxiety that are all a part of life on the streets. Ultimately, it’s a vicious cycle in which causes and effects interchange to the detriment of the user and their living situation.

“A large percentage of those we serve have addiction issues,” explains Rachel Hester, executive director of Nashville’s Room In The Inn. “I am not sure what comes first, the struggles they face or the addiction. Every one of us has an escape. For example: shopping or relationships. When we are in crisis, these escapes can also lead to crisis. What I have also seen is that many use alcohol and drugs to self-medicate their mental health issues and may not even be aware of it. What we (at Room In The Inn) try to work toward every day is offering alternative escapes like art therapy, library, chess, positive relationships, recovery meetings, education.”

The mixed-blessing of Hogancamp’s recovery is that his alcoholism is also one of the things he lost to the attack. Just as he can’t remember much about his old personality, it’s as if he can’t remember being an alcoholic.

When Hogancamp realizes his only hope for a full recovery is a total commitment to exercising his body and mind, he decides to take matters into his own hands. With hands that shake too much for an immediate return to drawing, Hogancamp creates an ingenious and rigorous program of art therapy for himself, right in his own backyard. His creation helps him to develop his dexterity while simultaneously exercising his astoundingly creative imagination.

Little by little, Hogancamp builds a 1/6 scale, WWII-era Belgian town just outside his back stoop. Populated with Barbies as well as military dolls and models, Hogancamp’s artistry can be seen in his obsessive attention to detail, and the effort and precision that go into creating the town of Marwencol are staggering. The name of the town comes from a combination of Hogancamp’s name with two friends: Mark, Wendy and Colleen.

In Hogancamp’s alternative universe, he is an army pilot who crash-lands outside the town of Marwencol. The town is solely populated by beautiful women as all the men have been killed in the war. Hogancamp’s alter-ego opens a bar in the town and they establish a neutral zone where the soldiers of every nation can interact and drink and leave the war behind for a time. Hogancamp’s real-life friends are given doll-counterparts in Marwencol and the constant threat of the German SS soldiers provides Hogancamp with an opportunity to re-live his attack over and over. The artist captures the history of the town in his ongoing series of gorgeous, narrative snapshots.

“It sounds like a couple of things happened for Mark,” offers Edith Costanza, an art therapist at Room In The Inn with a focus on addictions. “I would say the first would be the release of his fear and his anger and the reclaiming of his power. He is perhaps re-framing the incident so he can come to a place of understanding and forgiveness in order to move forward.”

In two major incidents in the film, Hogancamp replays his attack through his alter ego being captured and tortured by the SS in Marwencol. Both scenarios are brutal, graphic depictions of what happened to Hogancamp in real life, and both end with his being saved by the beautiful ladies of Marwencol. One of the rescue scenes would constitute one of the most violent displays in American film if it weren’t portrayed by dolls in still photographs, and the sheer bloodiness of Hogancamp’s revenge-fantasies speaks volumes about the therapeutic importance of his creative exercises.

“Art is a safe way to express oneself,” says Hester. “Art builds self-esteem. There is not a wrong way to create. I have a small doll cradle I have had most of my life. When I need to think, I pull out that cradle and paint. The spindles have layers upon layer of paint on them. Some have stripes. Some have dots. All have my soul. No one looks at that cradle and hears my thoughts but I know they are there.”

Art therapy has proven to be particularly effective at treating people who have experienced violent incidents and even the Army is prescribing art therapy in its treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A new PTSD program at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany includes art-therapy among a battery of approaches that the Army has deemed beneficial for these types of patients. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, nearly one-quarter of the nation’s homeless men and women are veterans, and the lingering effects of substance abuse, married to PTSD are common among this population.

The calming, patience-training effects of art-making can be crucial to dealing with long-term therapy and counseling. As psychiatric treatment becomes more difficult, a patient’s ability to remain calm and centered is a key to further progress. Its ability to calm the anxious and reassure the panicked may be the most important benefit of art therapy.

“Across the board, people experience the peace and calmness that comes through creativity,” explains Costanza. “When you are creating, you lose yourself and take a break from your troubles and self-centeredness.”

Hogancamp’s photos of Marwencol have gone on to garner attention and the Marwencol film has sparked new discussions about mental illness, addiction and art therapy at websites like Huffington Post and the Geek Pride blog at Psychology Today.

Near the end of the film, Hogancamp’s best friend, Bert, relates a story about being annoyed with a patron at Hogancamp’s New York gallery debut. A man leaving the opening commented to his date “C’mon, let’s go look at pictures of real war.” Bert comes to his friend’s aid, insisting that “This is Mark’s real war!” It’s one of the most tender moments in a film whose moving message has fostered growing awareness of the compounded difficulties that make life on society’s margins a day-to-day battle.

 by Joe Nolan. Originally published by The Contributor, Nashville, Tenn. ©

One response to “One man’s war: mental illness and the intersection with art

  1. googled the name “marcwencol” and here is the link I found:

    Thanks for the very interesting article.

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