Jemima Spence

What makes us human?

Essay & painting in response to the Prompt below


“There is no definable human nature. Both Buddha was a human being and so was Hitler. One was full of compassion and love, the other full of greed and hatred, so you cannot talk about a defined human nature. However, we can say confidently that there is a defined human potential, based on human needs. If those needs are met, human beings will be healthy and their potential will be realized.” – Gabor Mate in conversation with Jay Shetty

The question of humanity is a vast and intricate web of concepts, any of which you could delve into and create work from with validity. The topic is relevant across multiple contexts from philosophy and sociology, to history and science. While exploring ideas like evolution, fight or flight, culture, trauma and childhood, I initially sought a singular characteristic that distinguishes us from other species. I eventually concluded though, that all humans are different, and our constant evolution both individually and as a collective, makes it impossible to pinpoint one defining trait. As Gabor Mate suggests in the sentiment above, humanity has no one defining feature, only a potential for what we can become. It took time to reach this stage however, so through this essay I hope to unravel my thought process from the moment I read the prompt to the final brush marks on the accompanying painting. This written documentation also serves as a personal recording for myself, as this project diverged significantly from my usual approach and was hugely beneficial to me creatively.

As a realism painter, I usually create work based on a moment that caught my eye, with meaning becoming clear afterward. Here however, every aspect of the painting became intentional, from the composition and colours used, down to the body language of the figures and their actions. Although it felt somewhat excessive to attach symbolic meaning to every detail of my work, this process emerged naturally so I decided to embrace it. Although carefully assembled in this way, I hope the piece’s meaning can remain subtle or ambiguous to those who don’t read this text. I like when work is left open to interpretation, allowing viewers to create their own narrative or simply enjoy the visuals without an imposed meaning. 

This work has been influenced by all areas of the prompt, from Porter’s song ‘Take me to the alley’ and its backstory, to the idea of heroes and villains in our creative lives, and the broader prompt question itself of ‘What makes us human?’



My initial thoughts towards humanity were scientific ones, purely because of an interest I have in human evolution and neurology, which came from a free series of Stanford lectures on YouTube I listened to. The lecturer, Robert Spakolsky’s theories, have had a profound influence on my understanding of humanity, from human social and sexual behavior, to free will and decision making, so naturally his insights were first to come to mind.

From an evolutionary perspective, we have developed certain characteristics on a uniquely complex level when compared to other species on the planet. While traits such as language, emotions, morality, creativity, culture , spirituality and community, among many others can be found in other animals to varying degrees, it’s the unique combination and depth of them that define our humanity. 

I decided to keep digging because it didn’t feel like enough to pick a bunch of nice traits we have evolved and say it’s what makes us human. Other animals also show these traits even if on a lesser scale and I sought to find a characteristic that was uniquely human.

The need for something more than mere survival

Humans seem to possess an intrinsic drive to fulfill a potential. Once we’ve met our basic needs, we seek further growth. This desire, distinct from greed or ego, motivates us to improve ourselves. Our bodies reflect this inner drive, as kindness and generosity often energizes us and gives us a light feeling in our gut, while negativity creates tension and fatigue. These physiological responses indicate a natural inclination toward self improvement and goodwill.

In today’s world, we engage in a broad range of activities beyond mere survival. Gregory Porter found fulfillment in music, while his mother opened her home to others. Neither of these activities are technically necessary for survival, but they pursued them because they are human. We embrace concepts like thriving and ‘living our best life’, valuing culture and the arts.  Porter’s mother recognised that survival alone wasn’t enough for those she helped, and by supporting her son’s passion she encouraged him towards a more fulfilling existence.

The misplacement of fight or flight

“It would be overdramatic to say that modern humans are zoo animals. But our stress response to red lights, office cubicles, screeching subway cars and social isolation is similar to that of a captive animal.” – The awakened ape, Jevan Pradas

When thinking about evolution, I delved briefly into the concept of fight or flight. I considered how humans have possibly become so intelligent that we’ve not only outsmarted other species, but ourselves too. Now that most of us can buy food from supermarkets, and take hot showers daily without the fear of being killed by a tiger, our fight or flight response has nowhere to go. It is therefore displaced into other areas of life, and we find ourselves a species riddled with anxieties about tax, bills, and social media instead of focusing on food and shelter. We don’t see how abnormal this is either, as everyone suffers with it, and in our effort to become superhuman- superfit, super productive and superrich- we may actually be moving further away from our natural state. We might live our best lives if we take inspiration from the lives of our cavemen ancestors and slow down. This is difficult to do in today’s world however, and finding a balance between our needs, potential, and the demands of modern life is incredibly challenging, if not impossible. The requirements for maintaining mental and physical health often conflict with societal expectations whereas in an ideal world, the requirements would align.

Visual ideas at this stage

  1. Caveman conversing with a modern day man. The caveman might say “Dude, you’re seriously overthinking it.”

I did a quick google search to see if anything of this nature came up as visual inspiration, as well as some ai generated images. I loved them but didn’t feel ready to land.

2. Triptych of a person in 3 different daily scenarios, where their fight or flight response is activated when it shouldn’t be. For example looking anxious and sweaty when climbing out of bed in the morning, looking panicked and shaky when reading emails, or in a rush when eating dinner.


Being out of the loop


The idea for this portion of the painting came from a personal anecdote that resurfaced in my memory after sorting through my initial thoughts.

In march, just after turning 24, I joined my large family for a couple of days away in Wales. While sitting at the table one night, my younger sister was quite rightly complaining about taxes. Suddenly I had a wave of panic. Here was my younger sister, a fully fledged tax payer, while I neither paid taxes yet nor even really understood them. Like many of my artist peers, I am currently working a basic minimum wage job part time to afford the basics, living just below the tax threshold, and using the free time to build my art career, with some extra income coming from it, but not a lot. While my sister was complaining about taxes, it felt like paying them would be an achievement for me. It would confirm the fact I am a proper adult with a proper job, and not a fraud in human clothing.

After a while, I forgot the conversation and stress about taxes, as my mind went back to all the work I had to do once I got home. But when I returned to Leeds the next day and spoke to my partner, the panic emerged and I started to have a bit of a meltdown. In tears about how much of a failure I felt and how I should just get a real job, a 9-5, start saving, and maybe just paint a little on the side for fun, my partner stood there looking at me like a buffoon.

He pointed out that yes, while I may not be working solely in one place, or at the financial point of being able to pay tax,  I’m doing my own thing. I’m on my own path with its own set of challenges, hurdles and achievements. And while it may seem fruitless at times, with little monetary gain, I need to have patience, trust my passion and keep going. 

I remember he said “You’re just out of society’s loop”, and this phrase stuck with me. I’m grateful to him for validating my place in the world and my goals, because if I were to submit to the idea that because I’m now in my 20’s I should be working 50 hours a week doing one thing, I’d go completely mad and lose who I am. I may not be a full time or well paid one yet , but I’m an artist, and sometimes it makes you feel less ‘normal’, less human, and even sometimes guilty but this is a problem with society, as opposed to a problem with us, and I refuse to ‘fix my face to fit a broken mirror.’

While reflecting on this, I was reminded of the saying “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, I’ll spend its whole life believing it’s an idiot.” Similarly I suggest that if you judge a human by its ability to work 50 hour weeks, pay taxes and a mortgage, they will spend their whole life believing they are an idiot. Modern society’s criteria for normality often requires us to conform to standards that are fundamentally abnormal for our natural needs, causing physiological, mental and even spiritual harm. As Gabor Mate notes in ‘The myth of normal”, these requirements are unhealthy and harmful. We are not designed for the world we have created and have made our own surroundings inhospitable for ourselves, which is a profoundly ironic thing for an intelligent species to do. 

The phrase ‘being out of the loop’ stuck with me and evoked images involving skipping ropes. The skipping rope, constantly in motion, symbolizes the monotonous rat race of life. To stay in flow rope would be comfortable and safe, but our innate desire for something more urges us to reach out. Though we may trip and make mistakes, the change in action is more exciting, and these falls may end up being worth it if we are able to achieve the goal we strove for.

Porter’s mother advised him to ‘take a different path, towards his purpose’ and reminded him “don’t forget about your music, it’s the best thing you do”. She knew that his true purpose lay beyond the loop and that following this direction would allow him to live a meaningful human life. 

Visual concepts

  1. Long landscape canvas with a row of feet skipping, but one has tripped.

I didn’t want to just paint feet, and the visuals didn’t look right or accurately present my thoughts. I decided to do something more figurative.

Thumbnail sketches

PXL_20240509_101006278 (1)


Left: Human sat tied up in the skipping rope //  Center: Two figures playing together // Right: Isolated figure tripping on the rope. 

From these new thumbnail sketches, the third one (right) resonated with me the most visually. 

The figure is trapped in the skipping rope of societal expectation and withheld from realizing their full potential spiritually and creatively. The flower is symbolic of ‘something more’, and whilst reaching to grab it, they trip on the loop of life. The posture of this figure resembles a caveman or ape from whom we have derived, which references my earlier thoughts around evolution. The stumbling movement and chaotic panic of tripping up equally mimics my ideas around the fight or flight response.

Mockup painted sketch of this figure

PXL_20240509_142938523 (2)

Although I love this figure, as a standalone piece, the image felt too bleak, as if saying that humans are miserable, hunched over creatures always on the grind, and it ignores the joyful side of humanity. It still felt premature as the final outcome, so I went back to the drawing board.


I wanted to explore culture and self expression further. By culture, I am referring to human culture in relation to other species, rather than cultural differences across countries, races and religions. As far as I know, other species don’t have traditions, rituals, or external means to express their inner emotions. While other animals may have social skills to a lesser extent, they don’t have fashion, celebrate birthdays, or gather in circles to drink tea and talk about their week.

I considered the array of items humans have created over the decades for entertainment, practicality or trade purposes; things like guitars, bikes, phones or even toilet paper. Ai, like a guitar or hunting knife, is simply a tool created to enhance human potential, akin to mobile phones before they became a fifth limb. While technology has arguably expanded our capabilities, I question whether we have a false sense of growth and if taken away, our potential would revert back to what it was 50 years ago. This prompts me to wonder if our sense of progress is skewed by the illusion of technology as integral to our identity rather than simply a tool. 

The skipping rope fitted perfectly with the concept of human invented items, as skipping ropes to me feel like a cultural item. I remember skipping at school as a child, with a long row of kids all lined up keeping in time with the rope. This is obviously pretty mundane, but to me the pointless gathering of people to jump in time with a rope feels uniquely human. 

Visual concept


Some notes from this sketch read:

  • If you took away these items, wouldn’t we still be human? My answer was yes, meaning these items are merely tools to express our humanity, rather than being of intrinsic human value themselves.
  • Even without all this excess ‘stuff’, we would likely still dance naked round a campfire, build guitars out of wood, or make portraits using leaves. This shows our unique ability to make something meaningful out of nothing.
  • We express our emotions through external means because simply sitting with them or verbalizing them feels too overwhelming or insufficient. Actions help us convey our feelings. For instance, Gregory Porter’s mother didn’t just say she felt compassion; she expressed it by inviting people into her home, sharing food, and engaging in conversation . Similarly, Porter himself didn’t just say he felt grateful for his mothers lessons; he felt compelled to write songs and perform them as creative expressions of his feelings.


Culture shapes whether we thrive or fail. Like in a petri dish, our culture can either be toxic and hinder potential, or supportive and foster growth. A dark, empty space with nothing to do and no one to talk to, wouldn’t provide much room for human growth, whereas a resource-rich, supportive  environment would. Porter’s mother saw that the toxic culture around her wasn’t meeting people’s needs, so she created a nurturing subculture to help them herself.

I wanted the painting to recognise the cultural impact on human potential. The figure skipping can be interpreted within both a negative environment or a positive one, depending on perspective. They are either being encouraged by peers to reach out for their goals, or maliciously being tripped to fall. This refers to the idea of heroes and villains, and the polarizing effects the people around us have on our success. The foreground figure in a nurturing environment, represents the space for creativity and growth.

The darker forest in the background hints at the existence of societies where culture is deprived and personal growth limited. I included a house to balance the natural setting and reference the combination of interior and exterior contexts in our lives. While outdoor play is important, we spend a significant portion of our time indoors in our homes.


Self Expression

Our purpose and the reason we’re on the planet is to do this work, do our work, whatever that is, in order to play our part in this giant symphony- Rick Rubin.

Whether it’s a boxer expressing anger, a dancer expressing euphoria, a singer releasing heartache, or someone spray painting a government property because they are angry with the system; these are all forms of self expression. We all play a different role in the fabric of humanity and as are emotional overthinkers, these are our methods to release this excess mental energy in tangible ways.

Visual concept

Figure making a portrait out of leaves


This image became the main feature as it felt more honest and uplifting, with the skipping figure now in the background. I’m fascinated by stories of people living off the grid, and this figure now felt that way despite being in the forefront. One example I am referring to is Titus Morris, a man who lives Deep in the woods of rural Appalachia, growing his own food, without government ID, and claiming happiness in his freedom from the system. I learned about him from a documentary by Peter Santenello, an American filmmaker and traveler who documents diverse people and communities worldwide.

Creating a self portrait with leaves carries several symbolic meanings. It represents the need for self expression despite limited resources, much like early humans with cave carvings or ancient body art. This acknowledges that not everyone has the means for elaborate artistic expression, yet many throughout history have created profound works of art from very little, often from challenging circumstances. It reflects a survival instinct to keep going, embodying the phrase ‘i’ve still got things to do’. 

One of our biggest mistakes as humans is thinking we are separate from nature. Using leaves for the portrait suggests that to be human is to embody all aspects of nature from a bird, to the bark of a tree. Initially I considered a sort of hybrid human tree figure, but this felt generic so I opted for the more subtle human/nature portrait. 

The self portrait aligns with my usual focus on portraits and figures, and signifies the self exploration this project has given me, with each figure in the painting ultimately depicting aspects of myself. Despite our social connections, being human is a deeply personal experience, and having all the figures look the same adds to the argument that humans are all one and equal. 

Reference photos

The leaf portrait I created for the reference pictures


The importance of play

When we become adults, we often lose our inner child, and forget the importance of play. It’s an essential part of our happiness and growth as humans, yet the majority of our time is spent engaged in activities with a serious or practical purpose, with very little if any spent on activities for pure enjoyment. Creative play is essential for brain development, more so than the intake of academic information. Due to societal expectations we receive as adults, we often sacrifice this time for the sake of success and acceptance. In turn, the joy we feel during these activities is sacrificed too and this loss of joy is likely a big cause of the mass depression seen across the globe.

In the painting, I used a childlike crouched pose for the figure in the forefront, to reference the inner child. This position reminds me of childhood days at the beach building sandcastles, or rummaging in the leaves at the park. The visibility of the hands, feet and limbs highlights features uniquely human, with our hands telling stories, our feet walking paths, and hairless limbs simply being visually iconic to humans.


Parents & Empathy

I couldn’t explore humanity without considering parents’ influence. They are our reason for existence, and often the most impactful figures in our lives, whether positively or negatively.

This made me question my parents’ influence on my creative subject matter, much like porter drew from his mothers energy for his music. I’ve always been drawn to painting people and figures, thinking it was just something I enjoyed. I realized though that for me, portraiture is about empathy and connection. I paint everyday people around me, finding their faces and stories fascinating even if mundane to anyone else. When viewers connect with a figure and wonder about the subject’s life, feelings or daily experiences, it triggers empathetic feelings towards a total stranger. In this way by observing someone else, we also strangely understand ourselves better. As an overly sensitive person, I am able to channel some of these emotions into figurative paintings for others to absorb, so by painting everyday people in an engaging way, I hope to encourage empathy. I now realize that this approach may be influenced by my parents in some ways.


My mum, a relationship counselor and former samaritan, shaped my views on people from all walks of life, with her diplomatic perspective on behavior, criminality and social neglect. A little like Porter’s mother did with those who’ve “lost their way”, my mother taught me to see those who’ve even gone so far as to commit heinous acts, not as ‘monsters’, but as humans who have usually endured unimaginable trauma. This doesn’t justify their actions, but highlights that labeling them as ‘inhumane’ and ‘monster’, or something other than human, is easier than recognizing these traits as part of the negative end of the human potential spectrum. 

This idea connects to the theory of potential I mentioned earlier. Everyone has the capacity for both immense compassion and extreme malice, depending on how many needs were met as children and how much trauma was faced. Most of us will never reach either extreme, neither as enlightened as Buddha (as much as we may claim), nor as unimaginably destructive as Hitler. We prefer to associate humanity with positive traits, which can promote an illusive perfectionism and cause guilt when we inevitably act self-servingly. Labeling criminals as something less than human might even justify their behavior, leading them to reoffend because ‘they’re not human anyway’. 

I strongly believe we all have the capacity for both ends of the ‘potential spectrum’, and the figures in my painting slightly represent these extremes. One is entangled by the ropes of their trauma, struggling to break free, while the other sits independently focused, likely because their needs were met in childhood. 

Porter’s mothers embodied this philosophy too while “literally looking for people who were in trouble”, not those who had everything. Her compassion likely sustained her as much as those she helped. Further, some of her last words when dying from cancer were for her son to ‘take a different path and to continue his music’.  My own Mum is in fine health now, though it was a strange coincidence that the same week I was reading the prompt and making notes, she was going into hospital for her first cancer treatment. 

Before surgery, she said to me, 

“Just so you know, if I’m ever lying in a hospital bed at any stage of life in whatever condition, I want you to know it’s totally okay with me if you want to draw me, or take photos of me to paint or whatever.” 

This thought had crossed my mind due to my inner need to paint moments in life, whatever kind they may be. What shocked me though was that my mum, amid the stress of her own life, had room in her mind to consider me painting her. Her thought and willingness to be painted in whatever circumstance, showed her deep understanding and support for my creativity. She clearly understands the purpose behind my work, knowing that a painting of her in a hospital bed would be an unusual moment to capture and certainly evoke a large dose of empathy in viewers. 


I’d like to also mention my Dad here. He is incredibly empathetic and often shows visible sadness when someone around him does, as if literally absorbing their emotions. Through this project, I recalled another subtle experience where he taught me about obsession, relationship neglect, and work life balance. 

For around 4 years before, during and after the pandemic, I became completely consumed by painting. While I’m grateful for this time in some ways, my obsession became like an unhealthy addiction, painting up to 16 hours a day, neglecting people, exercising and barely going outside.

About two years into this period, I remember my dad saying to me “The ones who get the top often do so by trampling on others along the way”. By this he meant that many commercially successful people often make serious sacrifices including their health ,wellbeing, and relationships for the sake of wealth or notoriety . 

At the time I dismissed this comment, focused on the egotistical goal of becoming a famous artist and his words felt like a slight judgment. However, now that I live a more balanced life, I know he was subtly telling me to slow down and avoid falling into this trap. It took around another two years to actually slow down, but the fact I remember this comment now, while recalling nothing else from that day or time, suggests the subconscious impact it had on me. It forced me to acknowledge the people and time I was neglecting in pursuit of my goals. 

This experience highlights the impact of subtle parental messages, and the dangers of excessive ambition or workaholism. While creativity and expression are vital and should be encouraged and embraced, too much can be damaging. Success doesn’t equal happiness, and balance is crucial for long term wellbeing. I feel creative constantly, but I don’t need to isolate myself and fit the tormented artist archetype to prove it. This stereotype definitely played a role in this period of my life, but I realize now this is a toxic aspect of our culture and should be broken. I still feel guilty a lot of the time as if I’m being unfaithful to my passion, but I’m grateful to have learnt the importance of balance after four years, not later in life when more time was lost.


In the painting, the two figures holding the skipping rope have multiple interpretations. initially i saw them as parental figures to the piece. They hold the rope their child trips on, symbolizing parental guidance despite seeming harsh. Sometimes parents push us to do what they think is right, which may feel like tripping us up, however as adults we often see it was for our benefit. They can be seen as pushing us to stumble for eventual growth, or intentionally causing the fall to serve their own interests, as is unfortunately sometimes the case. In context of my dads words, it represents him tripping me up to slow me down. 

Regarding the rat race and societal norms that inspired the skipping figure, these two figures can symbolize the government, holding the reins of society and tripping up those who challenge norms. Alternatively they represent inner conflict, like the angel and devil on our shoulders. Life is a personal journey, often battling with ourselves and inner demons the most. You could argue it’s our own choices that determine our path, making these two figures symbolic of alternate versions of the self.

Artwork process



Recently while filling out a form for an art event, I got to a question asking how my close ones would describe me. One of my mum’s responses, ‘A little off the beaten track’, stood out to me. My ego loved it because we all want to be seen as a bit different than the average human, but I also appreciated the acceptance and trust that I’ll find my own path in life just like what Porter’s mother said to her son. I included the concept of the beaten track into the painting’s background, and the figure in the foreground appearing detached, in pursuit of a journey away from the crowd.

Collages of my sketches on top of background images

Painted sketch & digital sketches


Final composition sketch


Painting Attempt 1


I rarely restart paintings, but something didn’t feel right. I doubled the size I was working on (below) which would allow room for all the little details I wanted. The composition also needed slightly adjusting to the environment equally as interesting as the people in it.


Final painting

91 x 61 cm
Oil on board

Final Thoughts

I usually work from natural life, so on completing the piece I noticed the eclectic mix of imagery from the unusual characters and their actions, to the light, colors and composition.This mix gives the painting a dreamlike quality or an sense of vague childhood memories, lingering between feelings of tranquility and unease often present in these states.

The execution of the painting mirrored many of the topics I explored throughout. I struggled with perfectionism, feeling I wasn’t reaching my potential as a draftswoman. While it may not be my greatest painting technically, no painting ever will be. The illusion of a final point of happiness, ultimate peak, or ‘heaven’, can motivate but also trap us, making nothing ever feel good enough and causing us to miss the journey. Through this painting I realized how similar painting and life are, and moving forward I hope to approach both with the aim of enjoying the process without expecting a masterpiece.

Working on this painting has clarified the purpose of my usual practice, something I struggled with prior. I often question my significance as a painter, feeling overshadowed by millions of great artists and lacking personal stories to tell. However, I’ve realized my work is not about having extravagant stories, but simply about human observation. I’ve always been fascinated by people, especially the underdogs and regular folks or scenes of drain pipes and pigeons in back alleys. Ironically by painting myself, I understand that my work doesn;t need to directly depict myself in order to represent my experience.

As mentioned at the beginning, this topic is vast and intricate, offering various avenues for exploration and creation. While this essay is relatively lengthy, it still only captures a fraction of what it means to be human. The outcome could have taken many directions, and now I have multiple ideas I hope to pursue even after this project is completed. I hope as a species we continue striving to better ourselves individually and collectively by nurturing our positive traits. The idea that we have no definable trait felt remarkably freeing, and shifted my perfectionist view of what we ‘are’, to what we ‘can be’. Our potential is infinite, making it possible to define humanity only once we cease to exist.

Like Gregory Porter, this project serves as my subtle message of encouragement and understanding to all humans, as well as my immense gratitude to those who’ve shown support towards me. Through sharing my own human vulnerability, I hope to liberate others from perfectionism and encourage everyone to pursue their passions and self expression where they can, even if it involves stumbling along the way. 


Maté, Gabor, and Daniel Maté. (2022) The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture. New York: Avery.

‌Pradas, J. and Brion, P. (2018) The awakened ape: A biohacker’s Guide to Evolutionary Fitness, natural ecstasy, and stress-free living. Old Saybrook, Conn: Tantor Media. 

Stanford University, Robert Spakolsky (2010) Lecture Collection / Human Behavioral Biology. [online] Available at: [].

Hansen, C. (2023). Dr. Gabor Maté Speaks with Local Community About Trauma and Addiction. [online] Center for Child Counseling. Available at: [Accessed 7 Jun. 2024].

Dr Rangan Chatterjee (2024). ‘We Learn It Too Late’ – 5 Regrets Trapping People From A Life Of Purpose & Meaning | Gabor Maté. [online] YouTube. Available at: [Accessed 24 May 2024].

‌Hansen, C. (2023). Dr. Gabor Maté Speaks with Local Community About Trauma and Addiction. [online] Center for Child Counseling. Available at: [Accessed 7 Jun. 2024].

‌Peter Santenello (2023). The Man With No Legal Identity – Off the Grid in Appalachia [online] YouTube. Available at: [Accessed 7 Jun. 2024].

Jay Shetty Podcast (2023). Rick Rubin Addresses Criticisms & OPENS UP About His Greatest Challenge in Life. [online] YouTube. Available at: [Accessed 7 Jun. 2024].

Original notes