Free of self-judgement with Artful Retreats in Crete

Caroline Sylger Jones reviews this art therapy retreat on Crete and discovers that ‘mark making’ is a refreshingly different, creative way to be mindful and reconnect with what’s important in your life.

I am standing at an easel under an olive tree gleefully squeezing globules of bright orange acrylic paint onto a mixing palette. I follow this with a cornflower blue and a forest green, enjoying the squidgy feeling of the paints coming out of their tubes. Their creamy texture makes me want to smear them all over myself with my fingers – possibly even to eat them – but instead I take a brush and start to paint something random on the blank piece of paper infront of me.

I and five fellow guests are loosening up at Bleverde, a marvellous estate graced with flowers, herbs and fruit trees near the heritage village of Gavalochori on Crete. It’s the base for art therapy breaks led by charismatic Cretian art therapist Penelope Orphanoudaki, who discovered the technique after suffering burnout from a stressful 18 year corporate career.

‘Art therapy uses ‘mark making’ to help you connect with yourself and whatever is going on in your life at the moment’, explains a beaming, tanned Penelope. ‘You don’t have to be traumatised or ‘good at art’ to come’, just living in the 21st century’.

On our first evening we’re given a piece of paper with six identical circles printed on it and asked to create a piece of art using it. Buttoned up and unsure, most of us produce the naive drawings a child might come up with, from boats on a sea to a sunshine with a face. But ‘there’s no right or wrong’, as co-facilitator Romney Vandoros reassures us, and over the following twice-daily sessions we begin to let go.

Each day starts with a gentle outdoor yoga class led by empathetic local teacher Eleni Blazaki, followed by a tasty breakfast of bircher muesli, apple cake and toast before we make our way to a little stone studio for our sessions. Tasks vary, from recreating the cadence of our breath with pastels (suprisingly relaxing) and sketching a fellow guest with our non-dominant hand (difficult and hilarious) to drawing a self portrait with our eyes closed (no comment) and creating a picture inspired by a theme such as ‘I am perfectly imperfect’ (interesting).

‘Nothing feels forced and you don’t have to share a thing if you don’t want to, but we all do. My fellow guests are intelligent, interesting and humane, and by the end of the retreat there’s a powerful empathy between us’

I find that I take to it all very quickly, and that art therapy is actually a form of mindfulness that’s often far easier to engage with than sitting cross legged trying to focus on the breath. Using pencils, watercolours and the rich acrylics I grow to favour, I am so immersed in each task that when thoughts arise – of the work I need to do or a million dull domestic things I need to organise – I let myself think them but always and quickly return to the marks on my paper, grateful that I’m just here, and doing this.

After each session we discuss each other’s art, sympathetically led by Penelope and Romney – why we chose this colour, why we made that mark, how we felt when we did it and what that might say about us inside our life. Nothing feels forced and you don’t have to share a thing if you don’t want to, but we all do. My fellow guests, all women in their late 30s and 40s, are intelligent, interesting and humane, and by the end of the retreat there’s a powerful empathy between us.

The process is helped along mightily by the Cretian sunshine, wide views of graceful countryside and time out in my huge, calmingly decked out bedroom at the more luxurious villa on the property, Villa Levanda, where I also brave a swim in the (unheated and therefore slightly icy) swimming pool each day.

We lunch on the terrace here with tasty Cretian dishes prepared by the local taverna, such as potato, feta and tomato pie with spinach and pomegranate salad, while evening meals of moussaka and greek salads are eaten out in charmingly ancient local villages, where we chat about life with extravagant displays of bougainvillea draped above our heads and good wine inside us.

On our last day we visit the talented and unassuming Greek ceramicist Manoussos Chalkiadakis, whose art fills Bleverde and who graciously shows us around his art-filled home nearby, gives us good coffee, and allows each of us a turn at his potter’s wheel. The grainy clay hurts my fingers and my first attempt scuttles wilfully off the wheel and across the floor, but it’s fun and delightful to feel and mould a 3D shape using my own hands and to indulge in a spot of retail therapy after when I buy some of Manoussos’s gorgeous ultramarine plates.

Back at the estate, looking at a wall display of all the pieces I’ve produced during the retreat, I realise that while I found them hilarious or weird a few days before, I now rather like them. I leave Bleverde feeling free, with a much stronger sense of self trust and self acceptance than I had when I arrived.

A version of this article was originally published in The Telegraph