There were a few little last-minute problems.

Fujiko Nakaya's fog sculpture nearly went down the drain in Tuesday nightS storm; ash from Mount St. Helens held up Ed Kienholz four days in transit; two Italian sculptors coming from the Venice Biennale never did get their visas, and the Humane Society wanted to know what kind of paint Menashe Kadishman is going to use on those two dozen sheep.

But considering that nearly 100 of the world's top sculptors have converged in Washington for the next four days, tampering with just about everything under the sun they can -- and cannot -- get their hands on, the 11th International Sculpture Conference (ISC/11) may be getting off easy. And the public may be hitting the jackpot.

Joan Mondale yesterday put it another way, calling the exhibition mounted inside, out and around Washington "the opportunity of a lifetime, enabling people to see works of sculpture by artists among the most important in America and the world -- and it's all free."

Even the wife of the vice president who has met most of the biggies in the U.S. arts community, seemed overwhelmed by her celebrated guests at a reception she gave at the her house.

"This is Charles Simonds -- he's very famous, too, got little more than "this is my husband" as he stood beside her on the front porch receiving several hundred artists, conference panelists, selection and advisory committee members, foreign ambassadors and some ranking officials from the federal and district cultural communities.

California sculptor Jon Peterson, famous for his Fiberglas and wood "Bum Shelter" now available rent-free at three locations popular with Washington itinerants, was informed by his hostess that "this city is full of bums."

"A lot of them are in Congress," noted her husband.

Menashe Kadishman, an Israeli shepherd gone avant-garde (actually he was an artist before he was a shepherd in a kibbutz), said the sheep he'll paint blue Saturday at 17th and Constitution Avenue NW don't think a thing about it because they're always getting painted back on the farm as they way shepherds have of coding the flock.

"The same spot which I put on the sheep you could put on a canvas and hang in a gallery," said Kadishman, which just goes to show you, as he also said, that "everything is art -- it's an attitude."

Kadishman carried a genuine shepherd's staff, the gift from Italian shepherds after the Venice Biennale a few years ago. When the vice president spotted it, he asked to hold it.

"It's got the right weight," Mondale said authoritatively, then confessed he really knew nothing at all about sheepherding despite his rural beginnings.

"I talk a lot," he explained, "and you find that if you talk a lot, sometimes you hit the right thing."

A little later Kadishman, whose commanding presence could hardly be missed in the yellow and white striped tent adjoining the Mondale resident, spotted Tunisia-born Lita Albuquerque and claimed it was love at first sight.

"We're making peace," they said, arms wrapped around each other in what was probably one of the afternoon's few political gestures.

If Kadishman paints sheep in his sleep, Albuquerque, a California adoptee, paints monumental shadows in hers. In fact, Saturday she'll be tracing the shadow of the Washington Monument with the help of astronomer (who has calculated three optimum times of the day to do it -- 9:14 a.m., 1:08 p.m. and 5:02 p.m.) and some red pigment.She said it was an idea that first came to her in her sleep.

"I believe that there are certain geometric configurations in earth that are power points," she said. "I'm dealing with interrelationship of the sun and earth through the shadow of the monument."

Then there was Bobby Seale. That's right, that Bobby Seale, the former head of the Black Panthers who became a symbol of black power in the 1960s.

"Bobby Seale here? someone said in disbelief.

"Yeah, here," said Seale, grinning as he sat quietly across a table from his wife Leslie Johnson, member of the ISC11 staff.

Maintaining that he always was "interconnected with the total system," Seale, who moved here nine months ago and lectures, writes books and advocates "organized control over legislative bodies," said he tells hippies that there's no such thing as dropping out of the total system.

After his unsuccessful bid for mayor of Oakland, Seale said he decided he wouldn't run for any political jobs again. And while he voted for Jimmy Carter in 1968, he's going to wait and see what happens this year. Not that Ronald Regan stands a chance of getting his vote.

"I remember what Regan did to us in California -- he helped orchestrate the attacks on the Black Panthers. We got dead people behind that man."

But most of the Mondales' guests were unaware of Seale's presence, and were milling around inside the house to view the art exhibit the vice president's family gets to live with. Something Joan Mondale called a "magnificent" experience.

Or, as three companion pillows on one of the couches put it in needlepoint:

"Be it ever so humble/There's no place like/The Vice President's Home.