Chance Encounters with Bob Flaherty: Out with the family, 4 Jack Russells and their Northampton owner

  David Brewster frequently walks his four Jack Russell terriers on the rail trail in Northampton. The dogs — Lucia, the mom, pup Elsie, Uncle Nero and pup Ivan   —  are popular attractions among passerby.

David Brewster frequently walks his four Jack Russell terriers on the rail trail in Northampton. The dogs — Lucia, the mom, pup Elsie, Uncle Nero and pup Ivan — are popular attractions among passerby. BOB FLAHERTY

Published: 03-24-2024 1:01 PM

NORTHAMPTON — With the absence of traffic, sirens and billboards, your mind can drift when you’re biking the local paths.

Up ahead, for some reason, Frank Frazetta’s bold painting of the sword-wielding warrior driving a team of four polar bears across an Arctic tundra seems to come into view. And there they are, all four, harnessed separately but held back as one by a strapping gent with gray in his beard, David Brewster of Northampton. They are Jack Russell terriers, you now see, confidently abreast, senses taking in everything before them.

“Omigod how adorable!” cries a passing woman, bending down to give cooing attention to Lucia, the mom, her two pups Ivan and Elsie, and good ol’ Uncle Nero.

Soon there are others, a young couple, a woman with a backpack, a guy on a bike, all stopping, all joyous at the sight of these four sturdy little dogs and their beaming owner, who says these scenes are common when he’s out with the “family,” as he calls them.

“It’s amazing,” smiles Brewster. “I can’t think of anything that just stops people dead in their tracks. Their particular harmony, their faces, their rough coats, tails like plumes. I’ve honestly seen people, for maybe a minute, just forget all the darkness in their lives, uplifted by these beautiful creatures.”

But Brewster has been known to stop people in their tracks on his own, particularly when he’s on location painting. He’s a nationally known painter, who can often be found on public streets with an easel built for weather and wind, aggressively working the surface with rollers and strips of masking tape, synthesizing, as he describes it, “the centuries-old tradition of American scene painting into a breaking point of abstraction.” He’s been drawing and painting since he was a boy growing up on a farm in Maryland.

But more on that in a sec. We’re in his other world now, the world of dogs, also a lifelong pursuit.

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The dogs are remarkably well behaved and in-sync, that is, until one of them spots (A) a squirrel or (B) another dog, and let the four-part yapping begin. “Yeah, that cacophony of high-pitched noise,” grins Brewster, who says he’s constantly on the lookout for critters on these walks to avoid having his legs yanked out from under him by the single-minded purpose of four excited dogs.

Brewster politely takes the family off the trail until the “danger” passes, handling them as deftly as a water-skiier.

“There’s no technique,” he says. “The challenge is they operate as a pack. Because they’re tethered together, I have to stop and unbraid — nobody likes to be tethered tightly.”

As for, ahem, numbers one and two: “In the morning they definitely pee at the same time. They all seem to have different timing for doing other business, though, but we’ll soon be in the woods,” he laughed.

The Russells, like a slew of breeds, have their origins as sporting dogs. Their prowess on fox hunts, where they were small and tenacious enough to pull a fox right out of its den, came in awfully handy during horse-straddled hunting parties. “Persnickety owners would dock their tails to make a handle so you could pull ‘em out of the fox den easier,” Brewster lamented.

Of his own Russells, he said, “They’re very bright and have marvelous, exuberant personalities, but they are a handful. Mom is the queen. She calls the shots. But Elsie’s starting to assert herself.”

None of them pester the painter when he’s working, he says, but when the clock strikes the hour, it’s time to go out!

Why so many? “She was such a great dog, the mother, and I wanted to have the experience of having puppies, so I witnessed the birth of her first, and what will be her only litter. It was really something to see a dog that you only knew as a single dog suddenly have this intuitive natural instinct.”

He goes back a ways with Jack Russells. “These are the dogs I was born and raised with. My parents would be out gallivanting and I was alone in the house, kinda scary. So I’d make a cup of hot chocolate and watch ‘The Waltons’ with my dog. I had the best babysitters you could imagine.”

Brewster’s home base is in rural Vermont, where the dogs can run forever. His studio is there, in a barn with high beams, and one can picture the artist painting Wyethly out in the knolls. But Brewster’s penetrating style may be better suited to these parts. “During the week and especially the winter I work down here,” he said.

“I like people,” he explains. “I feel malnourished up there in ‘Wuthering Heights’ with shutters banging in the wind. I like walking to Cooper’s, the hardware store, Lilly Library. I need people.”

Brewster has a studio in the Brushworks Arts and Industry building in Florence. “We’re right along the Mill creek, we can walk to the Community Gardens, out to the open fields and let them loose,” he says of Lucia and company.

The same may be said of his work.

Wrestling match

There’s the urgency of improvisation in his painting, an athletic endeavor to be sure, most of his career spent outdoors. His recurring theme is an over-populated world with the hard garishness of its needs fast devouring the natural world.

“Mine was the last generation to experience farming America before the suburban sprawl of the 70s and 80s destroyed it,” he says. “I’m on a mission to chronicle the excavators and earth movers.”

He wields a paint roller like Bernstein conducting, fine-tuned edges, broad strokes, his works done in “one pass,” like the old-time American action painters.

“It’s a wrestling match,” he says, “trying to create a balance of what you see and what’s not there. It’s destroy/create/destroy/create, and then there’s that kernel of light, and you flex the same muscles and … you reinvent yourself.”

Brewster has had over 40 solo shows and just opened a show in Boston at the Chase Young Gallery that runs through April 21.

“Like everyone, I’m just coming out of my winter shell, doing a lot of drawings around the neighborhood,” he says, mesmerized by the unidentifiable shade of lime green trim on the Pride gas station as for the “wonderful vignettes” to be found on the grounds of the former St. Mary church.

But the moments he relishes are when passersby stop and engage as he paints, often in the poorest of neighborhoods. “I can feel it, man,” said one, encounters not unlike those on the bike trail with his Jack Russells.

The Crossing

Here on the Norwottuck the dogs continue to be greeted with wide-eyed surprise at each turn. It’s like marching in a parade with celebrities — you bask in the adoration.

As gregarious as he is, Brewster still finds the advent of the coming presidential election worrisome. “I’m gay. My sexual orientation should be irrelevant, but in a culture where there’s such an intense and deep divide, the Russells and I may be in prison,” he smiles.

We part company at the King Street intersection and motorists smile as the family crosses like it was Make Way for Ducklings.

Hmm ... Frazetta, Brewster, polar bears and Jack Russells. Now that’s a damn full bike ride.

Bob Flaherty, a longtime author, radio personality and former Gazette writer and columnist, writes a monthly column called “Chance Encounters” in which he writes about our neighbors going about their daily lives.