Anna Ling Is A Creative Cupid
The New York-based art director, model, and founder of creative agency Maruchi wants to normalize embracing our multitudes in how we approach work.
In the spirit of the "new" work world, we teamed up with Urban Outfitters and Dickies to celebrate creatives who are on the rise and hitting their stride.
In New York, people are almost expected to hold more than one job, whether by design or happenstance. Your doorman likely has guest starred on an episode of Seinfeld, and it's probable that the Calvin Klein campaign model displayed on Houston Street is also running the numbers at the New York Stock Exchange. However, in this era marked by the increase of self-proclaimed "creative directors," we encounter a generation of intentional multi-job holders, multidisciplinarians, and professional non-conformists who assume a multitude of titles for reasons extending beyond soaring rent prices.
Meet Anna Ling, a Japanese-born creative based in New York. With a lineup of five titles and a hunger for more, she's not just collecting achievements for herself, but also paving the way for other undiscovered creatives eager to follow suit. From modeling to fine art, creative direction, and set design, Anna's eclectic portfolio is a result of a life journey that spans photography in Japan, sculpture studies in the UK, and a modeling career in New York.
But Ling doesn't stop at titles; she's also a "creative cupid," skilled at shooting her metaphorical bow and arrow in hopes of pairing like-minded creatives together. In 2020, she shifted her focus to high-impact projects and launched Maruchi, a creative agency and platform that connects multidisciplinary creatives through meaningful projects. Born out of the pandemic's pressures, Maruchi created a platform that rejects professional constraints that often stifle creativity. It's not just a beacon of "hope" for Anna but a force reshaping how creativity is perceived, a declaration that freelance's future knows no boundaries. With a commitment to community, the multidisciplinary shares all her secrets on turning your passion projects into (one of) your jobs below.
Tiana: What did creativity look like for you at an early age, and how did your upbringing shape your process?
Anna: I was born and raised in Japan and attended an international school while growing up, so I was in a very specific international bubble. Even though my home life and where I lived were traditionally Japanese, my school environment, including my friends, was very international and multicultural, with people from various backgrounds. I was always surrounded by people with mixed backgrounds, including myself.
I was always into art; that was the one thing I was really passionate about, and that hasn't changed. I never knew where I would end up, but I think after attending college in the UK for sculpture and later getting into set design in London in the film and photography world, I naturally fell into the advertising industry. It makes sense because I was always in awe of the photos in fashion magazines. I loved watching behind-the-scenes videos of how music videos were made or the backstage footage of runway shows on YouTube; I would watch those for hours. So, even though I didn't know there was a career in that field, I naturally found my way into this world. It feels like I was always meant to do this.
Tiana: At that age, what kind of world were you trying to build when making art?
Anna: I always liked creating environments and crafting my own "Anna world." This is still a constant theme within my work. I feel like when it comes to creating abstraction within a space or within a frame, I’ve always liked things that are scale-less. I think with abstract sculptures, you can never really tell the scale in a photo until you see it in real life. It could be something so small or so huge. That, to me, is like a very whimsical world that I get fascinated by.
So even with photography or film, I tend to lean towards blurring the line between scale. I'd like to think of color as material for sculpting a frame. Because I did sculpture in college, I guess I was working with things very physically and within 3-D, using different materials like metal, wood, and ceramics. Now, moving into photo and film, I'm still sculpting and carving out negative space within a rectangle. I think that has always been a theme throughout my work, even though the medium is different.
Tiana: Does modeling come into play when you move to New York? What was the transition like from the UK to New York?
Anna: I moved to New York right after college. I really didn't want to leave London, but my student visa was up, and my dad is American, so I was able to come with citizenship. I didn't know anybody. Looking back now, I didn't realize how tough New York can be — I was quite naive about it. I think that's why I was able to keep going. But I had no intention of modeling or anything like that. I just wanted to continue doing set design and pick up where I left off in London.
As I started working more in set design in New York, there were more fashion-related projects and clients. I began making friends with photographers and other artists on set. About two years in, a friend asked me, "Would you want to model for this editorial?" I thought, "Sure," but I didn't consider it more than a favor for my friend. However, after that shoot was published, I got scouted. Knowing it was a significant opportunity and feeling like in New York, you have to say yes to things and see where they go, I said yes.
Initially, transitioning from working as an artist on set to modeling felt like a shift, but it was quite a natural transition. I already understood how photo shoots worked, what was involved, and what the clients were looking for.
Tiana: Can you reflect on your first New York apartment and the type of art you were creating there, compared to the art you're producing in your current apartment? How did these different environments shape you?
Anna: I feel like apartments serve as a timeline of your life. My first apartment was in Bushwick. I lived in a three-bedroom unit, but my room had no proper window; it only had a skylight, and there was no AC – it was quite crazy. During that time, I was interning at Refinery 29 on the photo team. I was essentially a helping hand on set, assisting with research and also starting to get involved in set design. In terms of the work I was engaged in, I primarily contributed to other people's creative visions.
However, now that I'm living by myself in a better environment, especially after my modeling career, I've had a strong desire to create art for myself once more. During the pandemic, it provided a great opportunity to focus on what I truly wanted to do. That's when I created Maruchi, which became a space where I could dedicate my "Anna world," express my vision, and interpret things in my own way. When it comes to crafting an environment, I'm not just referring to the physical aspect but also the social aspect. I’m focusing on people. I assemble teams for projects I want to pursue and organize events where people can interact. It's like I'm creating a visual and social environment, you know?
Tiana: Thinking about the parallels between your art and life, what were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome when transitioning from one phase of your life to the next?
Anna: I believe one of the biggest challenges was forming meaningful friendships and building strong collaborative relationships. This was essentially the theme of my first few years in New York, where I started from scratch without any connections. This hurdle was likely one of the main reasons I created Maruchi — to provide a welcoming environment where everyone can feel at home, trust the team I assemble, and find people who are excited about being part of a project that's meaningful to me. My hope is that Maruchi is seen with excellence and as a safe space, where people know that a Maruchi project is a quality project done right. That would be my proudest achievement.
Tiana: You have various roles and titles that reflect the duality of a creative individual. Despite these differing titles, what is a common skill you possess that makes you well-suited for all of them?
Anna: I believe my curiosity is a common thread in all my roles. I also have leadership skills, and I often refer to myself as a "creative cupid." Growing up as an only child, I've always been observant of people and their behaviors. I enjoy connecting with people creatively because I want to help them. I'm always thinking, "Maybe you two could work together," or "This would be perfect for this specific project." I've always been drawn to this aspect. Currently, I may not be creating physical art, but my art lies in connecting people in the right places. I find great joy in this because I thrive in teamwork and connecting the dots for the right people is where I truly find enjoyment.
Tiana: In a New York minute, you can suddenly change career paths just because your friend hit you up, and now you're taking on consistent freelance work. How do you handle boundaries between friendships and work relationships that keep you from taking on shitty jobs to fulfill favors for friends? Did any of those experiences influence the structure of Maruchi?
Anna: A lot of people ask for favors, which I've learned to only do projects I really feel comfortable and confident in. So that was the first step. But when it came to me asking for favors, I really wanted to make sure that they wanted to be a part of the project and that they believed in the project as much as I did. Most importantly, I wanted to make sure that everyone would benefit from it. The structure I've been implementing involves asking people about their future aspirations, even if they're already known for their skills.
This way, I maintain a list of interests that I can connect people with and develop projects from there, so we can all build our skills and hopefully secure better jobs through the projects we take. I think basically what I was experiencing when I was doing set work was that people would come to me just for the title of set designer. However, within the realm of set designers, there are many different styles. So, what I wish people would do more is research different styles of set design or consider the kind of work they'd like to do. Once you get booked for something, many more people will approach you for the same thing. As artists, we've already done that one thing, so we want to progress and move forward. I'm very aware that many creatives do one thing but have an interest in another.
Tiana: Right. Multidisciplinary artists are constantly being pigeonholed, so Maruchi is trying to combat that.
Anna: So, literally, "Maruchi" means "multi" in Japanese, it's the way we pronounce the word. It was intended to convey that I am a multifaceted individual. It doesn't even matter if you're a multi-creative person. Within my ethnicity and culture, I'm a blend of different influences. I genuinely believe that this is what the future will be like. In the creative world, there are also many changes in titles, and that's perfectly normal. I think society has pressured us to label ourselves, limiting our ability to brand ourselves or invest more energy into one aspect over another in order to make a living. After a while of doing set design, I began to crave more creative thinking, brainstorming ideas, and collaborating with people I wanted to work with. I wanted to be more intentional with the people I collaborate with and the ideas we pursue. Good ideas take time, and I was getting tired of the fast turnarounds to the point where a lot of time and effort could have been saved. Time, energy, everything.
°°Tiana: Especially as a woman, you're already boxed into assisting roles, and on top of that, being a woman of color, you're even more boxed in or deterred from deserving opportunities. How is Maruchi prioritizing marginalized groups?
Anna: I think, naturally, being Japanese, I already feel like a foreigner, even though I look American and sound American. At heart, I am Japanese. So there was definitely a culture shock, and it was hard to connect with other Americans. Whenever I started creating a community here, obviously, New York is a very diverse place, but the fundamental understanding of coming from a different place, whether that's physically or your background, I naturally gravitated towards people who understand that common ground. So I think when I connect with people for the purpose of friendship or projects or whatever it is, I like to work with people I like, you know? It just feels way more natural if we understand each other as people first rather than the art that they make. So that's my main starting point as I make a community here. And naturally, I find that the community I have around me is very diverse because of that.
Tiana: Do you remember the first person you reached out to for this project? When you thought, "I want to collaborate with creatives I genuinely like and know in person," do you recall who your first friend was that you approached for it?
Anna: Yeah, this project started during Covid, and at the beginning, it was mostly my closest friends. I approached them and said, "Hey, I'd like to feature you as an individual." I asked them about their interests and how they identified themselves, and that was the starting point. I began creating profiles of my friends, complete with collages of their work, and I used the keywords they provided me as if it were a magazine ad. My goal is to provide them with opportunities that align with their desires. When it comes to new people I don't know, I prefer to have at least a meeting or a casual coffee session to better understand where they currently stand and where they aim to go. This helps me ensure that what I'm offering is something they genuinely want. If it's not the right time for them, perhaps we can collaborate in the future. I'm fully committed to the people I work with.
Tiana: Right now is a challenging time for creatives. Major layoffs are happening in the media industry, and there's the SGA strike taking place. How is Maruchi creating a safety net or a space for creatives who may be feeling lost?
Anna: So, like how I started this during Covid, even though the recession is a tough time, I believe that's when artists can truly flourish because there's no pressure to make money. That's when there's a bit of humanity involved in the art-making process. I feel that great art is produced when everyone is genuinely invested in what they're creating solely for the love of art. This was especially evident during Covid when no one was making money from it, and everyone was doing it for the love of it. So, all the projects I undertake, I want them to feel like passion projects because I believe that's the purest form of enjoyment. Even though it's challenging now, I think there are numerous opportunities to create something you're truly passionate about because there's no financial pressure. A simple idea can lead to more opportunities and open doors. That's what I'm trying to focus on as we collectively navigate through this.
Tiana: It seems natural for people in New York to come together and form collectives frequently. What do you think it is about New York that makes collaboration so easy for people?
Anna: There's a certain magic in New York, where everyone is so determined. Living in different countries, I've noticed that New York stands out because of the special commitment people have here. It's a tough city, so the people who are here are resilient. They've been doing something right to stay, and they possess the energy and passion to continue. That's why many dreams begin here. There's a palpable sense of hope, which I love. It's also a place where you can meet like-minded people who share a common drive because people in New York are here to hustle, essentially.