When I talk to Activity Directors about the what art therapy sessions look like, they often have a list of concerns based on art classes they've had at their facility in the past. Art therapy often looks very different from an art class taught by a professional artist, so here are some of the differences.
Many art classes are held with the intention of teaching the participants how to create a piece of artwork - that is, the teacher comes with a sample project and shows the class how to recreate it. The goal is to have everyone make the same piece of art.
In art therapy, the overarching goal is generally self-expression, so projects are designed in such a way that each participant's artwork will be different from the others. Particularly for those with memory care issues or physical or cognitive disabilities, trying to recreate a certain piece of artwork can be very difficult and often causes frustration. Leaving projects more open-ended makes them accessible to those at every functional level.
Art classes generally teach one way to accomplish a visual style. Art therapy sessions emphasize the importance of making decisions for oneself and discovering an artistic style that works for each individual.
Process vs. Product:
Art classes teach people how to create a good-looking art product. While this is wonderful when it happens, a successful product is not always the goal in an art therapy session. Life is messy, and so is art. Sometimes even with the best effort, our art doesn't match up to the expectations we had for how it would look. An art therapist helps guide people to deal with these flaws and disappointments in innovative ways. Participants are encouraged to enjoy the process of making art, whether or not a successful looking product results.
Many art teachers are skilled with a single medium (e.g. Watercolor paint) and bring various projects using that medium. Art therapists are generally experienced in a variety of media and can use that knowledge to help participants create art in myriad different styles. I love to work with watercolor, collage, tissue paper, playdough, clay, yarn, drawing materials, and much more! Each session is something new.
I've had countless older adults tell me that they were reluctant to participate in art therapy because they "can't even draw a straight line" or "failed art in Kindergarten!" As I tell them, in art therapy no one will judge or grade your work - we are here to try something new, express ourselves, and try to have some fun in the process!