Karen Sherwood is a big believer in the old adage: ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’ And with very good reason.
Every January Karen launches the legendary ‘Under The Bed’ sale at The Cupola Art Gallery, where artists from all across the region display all the unsold and unshown artwork that’s been cluttering up their studios for the past 12 months – for Sheffield people to scoop up at a bargain price.
Thousands of paintings, pieces of jewellery, ceramics, glass and textiles go on sale at the Middlewood Road gallery throughout the month, priced from as little as 50p, meaning it’s never been more affordable to bag yourself an original piece of artwork.
“It’s our busiest time of the year,” reveals Karen, who launched the gallery in 1990.
“We have people who come in just once a year, to visit the Under The Bed sale – it really is the January sale.
The sale has been one of the highlights of the gallery’s busy calendar for over 20 years, after Fine Arts graduate Karen came up with the concept while visiting the flat of an artist friend.
“She started pulling all these pieces of art out from under her bed,” Karen explains. “She said it was stuff she wouldn’t show, because it wasn’t her current work, but she couldn’t bring herself to throw away. Some of it was really good.
“She said she’d sell it if she got the opportunity, but I asked who on earth was going to buy it while it was hidden away under her bed? A lightbulb went on and the Under The Bed sale was born.”
It wasn’t long before the art community of Sheffield embraced the idea, submitting thousands of pieces every year, priced between 50p and £350.
“The artists know that, just because they have fallen out of love with the piece, it doesn’t mean somebody out there might not fall in love with it,” Karen reasons.
“Some artists send something every year, others every three or four years, some are just showing for the first time this year, so there’s a really good mix.
“We had to introduce a maximum number of submissions as we had a minor crisis one year when one artist sent us 26 boxes of stuff! The only rule is if it’s previously been on show anywhere else, it must be priced at least 50 per cent less as I want a sale to be a sale.”
And Karen says the sale is a great way of getting people through the door and breaking down the common misconceptions of what a gallery is like.
“We have people who come along to the gallery for the first time for the sale and then we see them regularly throughout the year, as once people get in the door, they see we’re not intimidating and we’re not overpriced, which is what so many people think of when they think of a gallery. People love the idea they can come to a gallery and find a bargain for their home.”
And bargain is no understatement. The cheapest thing sold in the sale was a silkscreen proof for 12p.
“I’ve already spent about £60 on things myself,” admits Karen. “The average spend among the staff at the Under The Bed sale is about £200 each. There’s just such great stuff and the prices are unbelievably good.”
Karen admits it sometimes takes artists a while to fully understand the concept of the sale and grasp the idea that they can submit anything.
“One year a lady sent us an original painting wrapped in a misaligned print and I looked at the misaligned print and told her ‘now that’s the kind of thing we want!’
“We’ve had abstract artists send us figurative work from their pre-degree shows, and even things made out of junk people have found in their garage - it’s anything goes, so who could resist a poke around.
“I once bought a hand-built vase, and hand-building is a long process, so they normally go for about £100 each. This one was priced at £18 and when I asked the artist why she’d submitted it to the sale, she said she didn’t like the glaze on the back of it - that was it. Artists have a really critical eye for their own work, so it really is amazing the bargain you could scoop up.”
Stephen Todd, of Nethergreen, has submitted hundreds of paintings and drawings to the Under The Bed sale in the past 15 years.
“It’s a fantastic way to clear things out and make some space”, said the 58-year-old. “I generally submit about 50 pieces a year and last year I sold 80 per cent so I was pleased.
“Most of the stuff I bring in is stuff that’s a few years old and that I’ve moved on from, but don’t want to just throw away, so it’s really satisfying when people buy it and give it a home.”
Rachael Hand, 45, of Crosspool, submitted eight piece to the sale this year for the first time.
She says: “Your past work is part of a story of the journey you’ve been on, it’s a bit like looking back at photos in a family album. They have a significance to you as an artist so it would be hard to just throw them away.
“Although items I’ve put into the sale are not reflective of where I am now as an artist, I was proud of them when I did them, and it’s a nice feeling to know someone out there would want to pay money for them.”
The sale finishes on Saturday January 30.