Contemporary art is Karen's Cupola of tea...

A WARNING: if you spend too long looking in the windows of Karen Sherwood's gallery in Middlewood Road, Hillsborough, expect to be harassed.

She's passionate about championing contemporary art, and if you're outside Cupola - this year celebrating its 20th anniversary - she'll be grabbing you, taking you in and sending you off with a painting you never realised you wanted.

Just ask the Supertram workers who happened to glance in one day.

"I was worried they'd feel intimidated about coming in because so many galleries are elitist," recalls Karen, 42, of nearby Vere Road.

"So I ordered them in, showed them round, talked to them, and then off they went. But a few days later one came back. He said he didn't know much about art but a few things had caught his eye. I said 'What's to know? If you like it, you like it', and he ended up spending about 300."

That's how it's always been with Karen and Cupola.

Unexpected customers have kept rolling - or being dragged - in, from those Supertram workers to the butcher who paid with a bag of pork to the 12-year-old girl who so loved a pair of ceramic shoes she handed over her 2 pocket money each week for a lot of weeks.

Karen set the place up in 1991 after being frustrated by the lack of exhibition space then in Sheffield.

"I was an art student at the old poly and I ended up holding an exhibition in my flat above a butcher's because there was nowhere else," she says.

"About 60 people turned up - the free booze helped - and it was a real success, and from there I just thought I'd like to always do this."

And always, ever since, she has. And always with plenty of success.

So much so, she now employs five staff and has expanded the place twice.

What was once a single room is now three buildings, a secret garden and hundreds of paintings, prints, textiles and sculptures - "anything as long as it's contemporary and good".

Between 2000 and 2002, she and husband Chris lived at the gallery because they wanted extra space for Cupola but couldn't afford to rent that and their home flat. So the flat went.

"We'd be sort of making breakfast around these glorious paintings," says Karen, now a mother of two.

And the key to that success?

"Being a nutter", she reckons. "When I started people told me I was crazy because no-one in the north of the city wanted art. Well that was a red rag to me," she says. "I hate that snobbery, I love that my customers come from all walks of life. I've proved those people wrong."

Now, to celebrate 20 years, she plans to turn the clock back.

"This year," she says, "I'm trying to be that person I was back then by having loads of fun - secret gigs, workshops, parties. It's always been about having fun."

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