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. Then I take a brush and start to paint something random on the blank piece of paper in front of me.
Along with five fellow guests I’m 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 Penelope Orfanoudaki, a Cretan art therapist, who discovered the technique after 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”.
The Bleverde estate in Crete
The surrounding country landscape of the Bleverde estate in Crete CREDIT: DANNY TOUW
On our first evening we’re given a piece of paper with six identical circles printed on it and are asked to create a piece of art from this. Buttoned up and unsure, most of us produce the naive drawings a child might come up with, from boats on a sea to a sun 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, suitable for all levels including beginners, and led by empathetic Eleni Blazaki, a local teacher. This is 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 (surprisingly 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).
Painting by the pool at Bleverde
Painting by the pool at Bleverde CREDIT: ANDREAS MARKAKIS PHOTOGRAPY
Although I’ve never studied art I find that I take to it all very quickly, and that art therapy is actually a form of mindfulness far easier to engage with than sitting cross-legged being quiet. 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 (though men also join these courses), 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 the countryside and time out in my soothingly decorated bedroom at Villa Levanda, one of the more luxurious villas on the property, where I also brave a swim in the (unheated and therefore slightly icy) swimming pool each day.
An art therapy session at Bleverde
After each session we discuss each other’s art – 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 CREDIT: DANNY TOUW
We lunch on the terrace here with tasty Cretan 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 charming, local villages.
On our last day we drive into the nearby hills to visit the talented and unassuming Greek ceramicist Manousos 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 – and to indulge in a spot of retail therapy afterwards when I buy some of Manousos’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 stronger sense of self trust and self acceptance than I had when I arrived.
Caroline Sylger Jones – telegraph.co.uk/travel