Two kinds of links – silver and historical – bring artist to UMHS

Hospital exhibit features works by daughter of pioneering neurosurgeon & granddaughter of pioneering architect

Betsy Lehndorff sets up her exhibit in the Gifts of Art gallery

Betsy Lehndorff sets up her exhibit in the Gifts of Art gallery

The U-M Health System’s Gifts of Art program presents an exhibition of sterling silver compositions with narrative style by Betsy Lehndorff, daughter of legendary U-M neurosurgeon Edgar Kahn and granddaughter of Albert Kahn, the architect whose firm designed U-M’s former Old Main Hospital, the current University Hospital and Hill Auditorium.

The work will be on display in the Gifts of Art Gallery in University Hospital’s Floor 2 Main Corridor through February 1.

Much of the work in Betsy Lehndorff’s exhibition is the result of a concentrated 30-day period of silversmithing in her garage studio on a lake in northeastern Michigan. Under the self-imposed pressure of the exhibition, her creativity went into full bloom as she designed and produced one piece after another.

“All I had to do was keep up, sitting at my work bench 11 hours a day cutting stones, sawing silver and soldering as fast as I could,” says Lehndorff.

Albert Kahn, the famed architect whose firm designed two U-M hospitals & much more

Albert Kahn, the famed architect whose firm designed two U-M hospitals & much more

“I really like making jewelry that entertains people,” she says.

No stranger to design, Lehndorff interviewed some of the world’s finest industrial designers for the “Rocky Mountain News in Denver while working as a reporter in Colorado. During that seven-year period, she wrote hundreds of articles and cover stories about the decorative arts as well as home and garden design.

She also is a member of a noted design family in the Detroit area. Her grandfather was Albert Kahn, whose firm designed both the 1925 beloved “Old Main” Hospital as well as the current University Hospital and Hill Auditorium, among others.

She also has strong ties to the University of Michigan Health System (UMHS) through her late parents.

"Old Main" hospital, opened in 1925, was used for 60 years until the current University Hospital replaced it

“Old Main” hospital, opened in 1925 and was used for 60 years until the current University Hospital replaced it

She used to trail her father, Edgar A. Kahn, M.D. through the corridors of Old Main as he made the evening rounds to check on his neurosurgery patients in the 1950s and 1960s.

Edgar Kahn, left, in 1942 with two nurses and his mentor, Max Peet.

U-M neurosurgeon Edgar Kahn, left, in 1942 with two nurses and his mentor, Max Peet.

He headed the U-M Department of Neurosurgery from 1949-1969. Her mother, Rose Parker, M.D., was in internal medicine at the hospital, and her sister, Carol Rose Kahn, R.N., currently works at UMHS as a clinical care coordinator.

In 2008, while living in Denver, Betsy Lehndorff began studying silversmithing at a local recreation center. She had a sock full of silver dimes and quarters and a set of 16 sterling forks and spoons, which she melted down and turned into castings of animals and tiny people.

In her apartment kitchen, she then soldered these figures into tiny, durable compositions that told stories or visual puns, and her narrative style emerged. For gemstones, she tore apart her old jewelry. When those ran out, she used Rocky Mountain minerals she collected while a member of a local rock club, and she learned to cut smoky quartz, lapis, turquoise and other minerals into gems.

Lehndorff’s award-winning style is representational and narrative and challenges the idea of jewelry as a status symbol. Her ideas are often described as off-beat and she enjoys doing “ridiculous” things with diamonds.

Her pieces are meant to be experienced and their stories shared. In her view, jewelry must perform a function besides offering aesthetic value.

Tiny silver ants and a pearl "pupa" on Lehndorff's "Add an Ant" creation

Tiny silver ants and a peal “pupa” on Lehndorff’s creation

“Sometimes themes about birth creep into my work, because the best thing I ever did was become a mom,” she says.

“The Add an Ant Necklace is one of those pieces, with the adult ants bowing to the baby ant or pupa in the center. There’s also some humor here, especially when you ask, who would wear giant ants around their neck?”

Take the next step:

  • Visit the exhibit any day before Feb. 1, in the Gifts of Art Gallery – University Hospital Main Corridor, Floor 2, near the UH Café . Many of the works are for sale through the Gifts of Art program.
  • Take a stroll through some of the other public exhibits currently offered by Gifts of Art in its nine galleries on the U-M medical campus.
  • Come hear a free public concert any Thursday at noon in the University Hospital/Taubman Center lobby.
  • Learn more about the history of the Old Main hospital, designed by Lehndorff’s grandfather and his team in the early 20th century.
  • Learn more about Betsy Lehndorff’s work on the website of Hubbard Lake Silversmiths, her studio.


new logoOne of the first and most comprehensive arts in healthcare programs nationwide, Gifts of Art brings the world of art & music to the University of Michigan Health System. During times of stress and illness, the arts have the power to nurture and engage. Gifts of Art programs utilize the arts to assist and enhance the healing process, reduce stress, support human dignity and renew the spirit. Gifts of Art is sponsored, in part, by the FRIENDS of the University of Michigan Hospitals and Health Centers, grants, donations and art sales. To make a gift, please visit Donations.


Blog post written by Carrie McClintock. Special thanks to the U-M Bentley Historical Library for archival images.