Even though I was the one interviewing him at his studio, Corey Ochai asked me to read him some of my new work. I first met Corey at .5 Gallery in Etna on Pittsburgh’s north side in 2021, and I now know him well enough that this wasn’t particularly surprising. At our first meeting in 2021, I was with my friend Grant Catton, both of us looking to schmooze at local art events with partners we’re now no longer dating in tow. I was new to Pittsburgh. Corey bought my book on Amazon right there in front of me and invited me to be on his podcast. He and Grant are two of my biggest cheerleaders in the city. On my birthday last year, I posted a piece profiling Grant, so this year, I wanted to write about Corey. (My birthday is May 7, but May 6 was when the publishing calendar would allow us to post this). “You haven’t stopped smiling since reading this! Keep at it!” He urged as I read to him from my recent project.
1028 N Canal Street, where Corey paints, records podcasts, and produces video content, is one of the coolest studios in Pittsburgh. The entire space is furnished by Second Harvest, a secondhand store minutes away in the foothills of Sharpsburg. He keeps a rotating cast of animal sculptures including a monkey, giraffe, and French bulldog. Corey is also an avid collector of basically any self-help or entrepreneurship book you can imagine, and 1028 could easily function as a lending library for philosophical knowledge.
Corey and fellow artist Malcolm Xavier film an online commentary series called “This Is Art,” and both of their paintings show up on the walls of 1028. The two met when Corey was living across the Allegheny River in Lawrenceville, one of the nightlife hubs of Pittsburgh. “I could barely read at the time,” Corey said. “And I was making this little local newspaper with clips from the internet all pasted together.” He sold ad space to local businesses like music hall and dive bar Thunderbird Café and paid kids $5 to leave them in the crack between residents’ screen doors, since he found out the hard way that putting unsolicited materials in people’s mailboxes was technically illegal. But he had to print them somewhere. “Malcolm worked at Staples, where I would print them, and he would be like ‘Man, there’s so many fucking mistakes in this!’ But people loved them because I would put the neighborhood in them.” In stories like this, Corey has a joie de vivre that’s infectious. It’s part of what makes him what the Pittsburgh Tribune called the “unofficial mayor of Sharpsburg.” Mindy Heisler, who owns Mindy’s Take and Bake near his studio space, described Corey as someone “with a heart the size of Texas.”
I’ve spent many mornings at 1028 with Corey, shooting the shit on his podcast, looking at whatever paintings he’s working on, or ducking across the street to Redhawk Coffee to socialize. On the morning I spoke to him for this piece, we scored some on-the-house bagels. Redhawk is Sharpsburg’s unofficial creative salon. People sit around and read, write, gossip, or flock to the Sunday morning breakfast burrito special. Corey and I had just been discussing our favorite verses Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and he had had an earlier conversation with one of the baristas about a documentary on the song, so we ended up in a whole side tangent about that with the barista. You never know what you’ll get in Redhawk. Or at 1028, for that matter. Our conversations often end up with one of us saying “Goddamn!” or “Fuck!” at whatever philosophical realization we come to about the nature of work, love, the art business, or the local scene.
The head honchos of UP Mag at 1028 N Canal St, 2023
Since our first meeting at .5, Corey’s star has only risen. The Unbiased View, his 2022 solo show in Sharpsburg, was a massive hit. The paintings in The Unbiased View were visceral, with heavy, coarse linework and extraterrestrial-like figures. Corey’s way of painting the human body feels like it forces us to look at the part of us we don’t want to look at. It’s as if he’s painting people’s auras, but not the nice-looking New Age ones you might get on from a wellness account on Instagram.
“It’s a state of mind. Freedom does not exist on the outside of the body. We have to operate in the parameters of the existing laws and religion outside of us. It’s not a bad thing to have the parameters, but that also means there must be something beyond them.”
In The Pink Cloud, a 2023 show at The Government Center, he explored different depictions of love and self-delusion, the “pink cloud” being the early phase of sobriety when things seem like they’re going to be easy. “I geared the pink cloud to the love, let me attach myself to the color and see my experience of what love is and what I feel love looks like. I wanted to ride the cloud,” he said. Love, to Corey, is apparently not always pretty, since the figures in The Pink Cloud are skeletal and saturated. But, in all fairness, that’s what love is like, too.
One of the most prominent themes in Corey’s work is the nature of freedom. What does it mean to be free? Can any of us ever be truly free? Free from what? Many of his paintings split the word freedom up into the phrase free-dumb. “It’s a state of mind,” he said, when I asked him what freedom means to him. “Freedom does not exist on the outside of the body. We have to operate in the parameters of the existing laws and religion outside of us. It’s not a bad thing to have the parameters, but that also means there must be something beyond them.”
He produced a massive canvas for the “Make Your Mark” initiative in Pittsburgh to free international hostage Marc Fogel, inspired by his own brother’s incarceration. That piece, The Captive’s Dream, takes the themes of freedom from The Unbiased View and incorporates newer interests. It’s an impressive, enormous work that incorporates one of his newest fixations, using old cassette tapes as found materials.
“I wanted to simplify and let the pieces speak for themselves. If I think about it like coffee, it’s not the coffee in the cup, it’s the beans in the soil. I’m thinking about the man that gets up at four in the morning to grow the beans — I’m thinking for the purest form of it.”
“I actually don’t listen to music when making these cassette pieces,” he said. “I chose to listen to my thoughts, which feels like creating like a serial killer.” He laughed. The canvases use the caps from spraypaint cans, toy train tracks, and cassette tapes. They’re notably more minimialist than what he showed in The Unbiased View. One of the pieces, When a Jailbird Hums, is simply black and white stripes with a red cassette tape and red train tracks over it. Change the Song is tiled entirely with cassette tapes painted a salmon pink. “I wanted to simplify and let the pieces speak for themselves. If I think about it like coffee, it’s not the coffee in the cup, it’s the beans in the soil. I’m thinking about the man that gets up at four in the morning to grow the beans — I’m thinking for the purest form of it. It’s so wild when you start talking about it, almost makes me wanna cry!” He exclaimed. Corey plans to use the canvases for an upcoming show at Mixtape, a fixture of the Pittsburgh nightlife scene whose logo is a cassette tape.
“I was able to explain what I was creating and how I felt. Each piece had its purpose of finding the words to explain how I feel. Now I know what’s inside of me. I didn’t before, and that’s why I ended up in the psych ward in the first place.”
His first art show, however, was not at any of the local galleries he’s now well-known at. It was at a psychiatric ward. “I was really struggling with my mental health and substance abuse,” he said. “I got to the psych ward and I was completely exhausted by life in general. My tank was empty. Every hour there was a class, so I took every single one of them, including this art class. They handed me some pastels and some colored paper, and for some reason I was like ‘I’m gonna take the black paper.’”
This stint in psychiatric care served as a creative awakening, because what Corey had been escaping using drugs and alcohol suddenly became less scary once he put a pastel onto that dark paper. “When I was drawing, I couldn’t escape my own mind, but my thoughts of worry no longer existed. They called over the program director and she said ‘You gotta keep doing this. There’s this thing called art therapy,” he remembered. I realized at that moment that I had my first show. I was able to explain what I was creating and how I felt. Each piece had its purpose of finding the words to explain how I feel. Now I know what’s inside of me. I didn’t before, and that’s why I ended up in the psych ward in the first place.” He left the psych ward with forty to fifty pieces and enrolled in a secondary treatment program where he pursued art therapy. He hasn’t looked back since.
“I saw his work and I understood what he was going through and it was a way for me to make sense of my feelings. But sometimes your hero has to die for you to live.” He paints with Basquiat in the back of his mind, but, as put it to me: “I’m Corey Ekwrube Ochai—CEO.”
For The Unbiased View, Corey produced a piece entitled I’m Not Jean. As a Black American artist who works in neo-expressionism and mixed media, he’s often compared to Basquiat. And he loves Basquiat. “But I didn’t even know who Basquiat was when I started painting,” he said. “I saw his work and I understood what he was going through and it was a way for me to make sense of my feelings. But sometimes your hero has to die for you to live.” He paints with Basquiat in the back of his mind, but, as he put it to me: “I’m Corey Ekwrube Ochai—CEO.”
Part of why I get along so well with Corey is that he does this kind of thing. He defies definition. He wants to be everything all at once and nothing. A creative in the modern age has to. We’re all forced to be our own public relations agent, social media manager, and even caterer. But Corey embraces it. He’s gone to some of the darkest places a person can go to—he’s had cancer, faced addiction, faced suicidal ideation, and is the only one of his siblings not to be incarcerated. He’ll just flippantly throw out lines like “If I hadn’t had cancer, I’d definitely be dead right now. A million percent.” He met his wife when she was a nurse in the cancer ward, which is a whole other story fit for the plot of a movie. In a profession so obsessed with suffering and trauma as a means for creativity, Corey is a refreshing voice that honestly talks about the ways these things shape our lives without pathologizing them. I have a distinct memory of showing up to 1028 after having to appear in traffic court and being out $500 and laughing raucously with Corey about our shared experiences in the throes of the municipal court system. Corey is that kind of friend, and that kind of artist.
“What’s inside of you, it comes out naturally if you find the ability to let it flow through you. Most people are scared of it. But it’s a beautiful thing!”
The word “mindfuck” is one I’ve been using a lot recently, and Corey has experienced plenty of his own. “There’s all these mindfucks in life,” he consoled me. “Through art, I can navigate those mindfucks and find my true feeling. It doesn’t just come to me. It has to be built as I just dig deeper and deeper. It’s the truest extension of myself. What’s inside of you, it comes out naturally if you find the ability to let it flow through you. Most people are scared of it. But it’s a beautiful thing!” he said. From his childhood in the former steel town of Braddock to his time as a security guard for a Fortune 500 company and the knowledge he soaked up from that to his lowest moments of addiction and psychosis to his time as a creative director at nearby gallery Atithi Studios to his current endeavors at 1028, there’s no doubt that Corey Ochai is finally the CEO of his own life.