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The Lord Of The Gigs: A Craftsman's Tale Of Self-Employment

The gig economy seems a phenomenon bespoke to the modern age – download an app, sign up, start making your own hours and become your own boss. The gigs themselves are new takes on old classics, taking the pizza guy or fast-talking taxi driver and infusing them with a burst of mobile convenience and self-employment.

But to some, the lifestyle of moving from gig to gig began decades ago, before apps and accessibility shaped the public perception of this burgeoning economy. 

William Lloyd is one of those workers. He doesn’t deliver groceries. He doesn’t drive college kids to and from the bar. His talents are more suited to the age of knights and kings, rather than IPAs and IPOs.

His gigs are found in steel, ivory and gemstones, and in taking those materials and creating art. Lloyd crafts blades and jewelry – intricate hilts carved with scenes of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”in bas-relief, blades of folded Damascus steel like ripples on a lake, inlaid gems providing points of flashing color among the off-whites of moose antler and bull horn.

Some of his materials run more exotic.

“I use some fossil ivories out of the tundra, some mammoth and some fossil walrus, that’s thousands of years old, and I take those things, and I create treasure,” Lloyd says.

Lloyd now travels the country with his wife and a cadre of apprentices, following the meandering path of Renaissance fairs like Deadheads tracked Jerry Garcia in the ‘70s, selling his wares to passersby and patrons alike.

These fairs are celebrations of Europe’s emergence from the Middle Ages, a period piece at all angles – costumes, food, performers, the talk and circumstance of the Elizabethan era (although the Maryland Renaissance Festival where Lloyd currently resides prefers the reign of Henry VIII). They spring up for a handful of weekends in a forest clearing or open field, usually a rite of fall as the breeze cools and colors change.

The life Lloyd has built, in the age that the fairs seek to replicate, used to be a matter of sequenced steps from a young age – apprentice to the village blacksmith, later taking over the forge or forging out solo, attaining a position perhaps as an armorer for a lord’s army or, for a lucky few, as swordsmith to the king.

Lloyd’s origin, as he tells it, is a far cry from the climbing of the feudal ladder required in days of yore. It begins in 1992, but at the least, it begins much like Henry VIII’s own story – with a divorce.

“One day, after I’m freshly divorced and rapidly self-destructing, I get dragged to a mountain man rendezvous, and I saw a guy there with and eagle-handed knife carved in antler,” Lloyd says. “I went home that night and was packing the things in my shop and as I got to my bench there, on my bench was an old knife and over my bench was a deer antler from a deer I’d shot.”

“I rebuilt that knife into an antler-handled knife, and spent a week and a half carving a bear head coming out the end of it with its mouth open, every tooth showing,” he adds. “I took it to the rendezvous, and I was showing it off, and halfway through the day somebody offered me more money than I owed in back rent. I sold that knife, took orders for three more, I bought a tee-pee and a Bronco, and me and my buddy Ishi took off on the road going from rendezvous to pow-wow and selling our artwork there.”

From there, Lloyd says he met his wife, Elizabeth, at an “REI – type store.” She was the office manager and Lloyd was still living out of his van, struggling but living on his artwork.

Elizabeth began managing their small corporation, and Lloyd says in the following six months, they made more money than either of them had made in the past year combined. They began applying to more shows, hired apprentices and fell in with the “rennie” crowd – those who follow the fairs looking for work – until Lloyd’s first knife had grown into a full-fledged artistic business.

Lloyd says the community of rennies that he travels with is “like living in a small town everywhere you go.”

“Some people you won’t see in the small town you live in for two or three months, but then you see them every day for a month,” he says. “As you go from one show to another, you might not be at the same show with everyone, but some people from the show you were at are there, and then there’ll be some more of them at the next one, and then every year, you’re back in that same place with all those people.”

“It’s a very tight-knit community,” Lloyd says. “It’s a whole different way of life.”

Now established as an artist and craftsman in his own right, Lloyd says he has some advice for those nauseated by bosses and hours, and looking for a gig of their own.

“No matter what you love to do, whatever it is, if you want to do something for a living, if you decide to spend eight hours a day, five days a week doing it … I’ve told people, I don’t care if what you’re interested in is dog poop, if you spend eight hours a day, five days a week doing something with dog poop, you’ll make a living about it,” he says.

Lloyd says making a decent living as your own boss comes down to simple math and a dash of economics. 

“The only reason a boss can afford to pay you $15 an hour is because you’re worth $30 an hour, so he can make $15 and you can make $15,” he says. “Well, if you’re working for yourself, you get the whole $30.” 

That is, “if you perform,” he warns. 

The life of a traveling artisan, much like the blacksmith in the days of sword and shield, is itinerant and inconsistent, Lloyd admits. 

His health benefits, retirement plans, work schedule and fair routes do not come from on high in an email from his boss; the details are worked out meticulously by Lloyd and his wife. Demand can dry up, wheels blow out on the highway, the power goes out and the carving tools turn off. 

But Lloyd says, despite the hardships and setbacks, he wouldn’t trade this life for any other.

“The life that we have chosen is not a stable life,” he says. “But it is a good one.”

Alexander Tuerk and James Perkins Mastromarino produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

One of William Lloyd's swords. (Courtesy of William Lloyd)
One of William Lloyd's swords. (Courtesy of William Lloyd)