Spirit Quest

Juan Geuer: Such a life can never die

By The Reverend Doctor Hanns F. Skoutajan

The Reverend Doctor Hanns F. Skoutajan

Juan Geuer is a person that I cannot imagine as dead, indeed, he isn't. To all who knew him he will always be very much alive, full of energy and curiosity even at 92 years of age. On Thursday, May 7, 09 his life was celebrated in a beautiful requiem mass at Holy Name of Mary Roman Catholic Church in Almonte, Ontario. The music included pan pipes from Latin America, some of the familiar songs of the sixties, as well as violin solos. Josie Geuer, a granddaughter gave a moving portrait of her "Opa" that roused both tears and laughter.

Juan challenges my vocabulary of superlatives. He was a scientist who knew and understood about black holes and earthquakes, a philosopher who could not only quote but comprehend Hegel and Kant, a theologian who could speak about Thomas Aquinas as well as Hans Kueng..... all this without a single university degree. Indeed, much of his basic education was home schooled.

Some might call him an eccentric. None of his ideas would easily fit into a traditional mould. He was profound and yet simple, humble and full of life and just plain fun.

It was my wife who first drew my attention to Juan when i was minister of the United Church in Almonte in the sixties. She had been to an ecumenical study group where Juan was an enthusiastic participant. As a faithful Catholic he seemed to be impatiently waiting for the reforms of Vatican II when Pope John XXIII opened the windows of the church to bring in the the fresh air of the spirit. He never lost his enthusiasm for that movement, he seemed to embody it.

Juan was born in April 1917 in Holland, the oldest son of a family of 11. His father and mother were artists involved in stained glass and like their son were free spirits that found Holland somewhat stifling . They spent some time in southern Germany where Juan learned the language. Then shortly before the war his parents and a sister set off for the highlands of Bolivia where they hoped to continue their art in glass. Just before the war Juan brought the rest of the family to South America.

Before his departure he met Els, a beautiful young woman and they fell in love. The war separated them and they would have to wait until 1946 when Els undertook the long journey by sea and air to Bolivia after receiving Juan's proposal via the Red Cross. That love story itself deserves a volume of its own. He told me about his frequent visits to the airport not knowing when his love would arrive. And then one day, the very day when he did not bring a bouquet with him, there she was. They would journey together for 62 years with 9 children , 4 boys and 5 girls in their train. That clan has now swelled to 20 grandchildren and 3 great grands.

Life was not easy or without tragedy having lost two of their children. In 1950 they arrived in Canada where Juan found employment as an illustrator at the Dominion Observatory. They set up home in the town of Almonte, a perfect place for creative people and a growing family.

When I heard that Juan was an artist I expected that I would soon be shown lovely paintings or some sculptures. He had told me that his father had worked in stained glass so I would expect to see some pious glass windows. If I did I would have been disappointed. Juan worked with a great variety of media such as styrofoam and steel. All of it was quite unconventional, some would question whether it was art at all. His creations were really a crossover between art and technology. He wanted to show the beauty of the laws of physics rather than only their utility.

He thus created Al Asnaam, which takes its name from the site of a Moroccan earthquake. He projected beams of light around a room as the viewer entered it. Stepping through the room caused the light to shake. A heavy metal plate under the viewer acted as a seismometer causing the light on the walls to move with the viewers footsteps.

My favourite installation consisted of a laser beam that focused on a drop of water as it emerged from a spigot , vibrated as it grew until it reached a specific size and dropped. All this was reflected on a screen. I could stand endlessly and watch as if mesmerized. All his art was interactive which made it fascinating if not always totally comprehensible. It was best to have him as your guide as was the case when his various objects of art were on display at the Almonte Wool Museum.

He achieved great recognition throughout Canada and the world and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada . His ‘oeuvres were shown not only in Ottawa and Toronto but also in Europe and the United States.

Conversations with Juan were rich as he touched the thoughts of the great philosophers , scientists, theologians and writers. He would burst forth with stanzas by Goethe and Schiller in German. His sense of humour pervaded his repartee. He had a great laugh.

He was a popular person in Almonte where his wife worked in the library. She was a creative gardener. To step into her back yard was to enter into a realm of peace and awe.

When in 2005 Almonte featured a puppet festival Juan's playful nature found an outlet. Both he and a puppet in his likeness, especially his enormous bushy white eyebrows, were part of the parade.

Two years ago Juan asked me to select two of his best sketches. A few weeks later Juan arrived at our door with the two original drawings beautifully framed. They will be a wonderful reminder of my/our friend.

Juan died quite suddenly. Having completed a catalogue of his work he experienced an aneurysm. The staff of the Almonte General Hospital flipped when they discovered that Juan had driven himself to the Emergency. Surrounded by many of his family Juan concluded this leg of his journey.

When some ask me whether I believe in an after life, I answer in the affirmative. No, I am not in possession of some incontrovertible empirical evidence or have been so persuaded by impeccable logic. Rather my proof is found in a life lived and loved. Such a life can never die. There is a spirit here that more than hints of eternity.

Hanns Skoutajan is author of Uprooted and Transplanted, and The Road to Peace, both available at Canada Books on Line. A documentary film: Hitler's German Foes is based on his first book. He is currently Ecumenical Associate at The Anglican Church of St. John the Evangelist, Ottawa. — Mike Heenan, Literary Editor

15 May 2009 — Return to cover.