PORTLAND, Maine — Pop artist Jessica Lauren Lipton stood on the dance floor at Flask Lounge on Tuesday, clad only in her underwear. Lipton stayed silent but her voice looped on a sound system. It invited strangers to dip their fingers in powdered charcoal and caress her body. She asked them to leave soot-stained fingerprints on her pale skin, blackened evidence of where their hands had roamed.

Half a dozen people did just that. Some were quick, others lingered, but everyone left their mark.

By the end of Lipton’s happy hour art performance, her neck, face, hands and belly bore smudges. Beaming, she then put on her clothes and celebrated her success with a beer at the bar.

Lipton calls her exploration of human touch “My Body is Your Body is Everybody is Nobody.” She’s not finished, either. Moving on from the caress, over the next three Tuesdays, she will ask people to squeeze, slap and kiss her — all for the sake of art.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

No stranger to the city’s art scene, Lipton used to oversee the First Friday Art Walk for Creative Portland. She’s also been involved with the Dooryard artist collective, Creative Portland Corporation and the Portland Public Art Committee.

Lipton moved to Maine from New Jersey more than a decade ago. Besides performance art, she is known for her installation work, video and sculptures made from thousands of plastic six-pack rings. Lipton’s been developing her current performance piece since 2011.

Q: Given that most of the people who will see this story in Maine are not artists, just what are you trying to prove, here?

A: I’m trying to prove that people need human contact, that we need touch and we’re a very touch-starved society. Maybe they need it more than they’re saying, more than they can vocalize — that they need that physical connection for their wellbeing.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Q: You’re doing these performances in your underwear, in a Portland bar, during happy hour. Are you just trying to be provocative?

A: I think it comes off as provocative. Doing this work in a gallery setting has its own boundaries too — it’s not as accessible. There’s something about doing it in a space that’s really inclusive. Flask Lounge is very inclusive. Then, purposefully doing it at happy hour on a Tuesday is because a lot of my fellow creatives work in the service industry and (this way) they can attend something that’s experimental and different. You’re on your way home from work, you’re thinking about maybe grabbing a drink, or you’re walking by. (You can) pop in and see something different. I always want to reach a broader audience.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Q: How will these performances play out?

A: The first one was the caress. That’s the best way to break the ice. It’s just a soft way to touch somebody and think about what it is to brush against their skin. Next week will be the squeeze, which brings pressure. You can squeeze somebody, like giving a message, versus you can squeeze somebody to hurt them. You can squeeze somebody to stop them. Somebody might come up and try to squeeze my throat — as long as they’re not really going to hurt me. That’s where I can learn more about people, the more they interact with me. How you choose to touch me tells me more about you than it says about me. The third week goes into the slap. I think it will be less (worrisome) than everyone perceives. I don’t think it’s going to be really aggressive. But we’ll see. And then the final week is ending with a kiss.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Q: Are you ready to get judged for doing this in public? The comments under this story alone are bound to be pretty harsh.

A: I think the people who are going to make the most negative comments, they need a hug. They might need this kind of interaction with somebody. To actively go out to belittle and hurt people, it shows more about what they’re lacking, what they’re missing. I get the comment from friends and supporters, “This work is very brave.” I don’t feel brave doing this. I feel I have to do it. I recognize there’s a very political statement in being a female body — in the context of what’s happening in the world right now — saying I’m here, I’m standing in a bar, in my underwear, saying, “You can touch me.”

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Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN
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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.