The Mortgage Bankers Association would like you to know that its creativity goes beyond double-entry bookkeeping. In an attempt to make the point, the association asked Zenith Gallery to organize a national juried art show called "Shelter '85," designed to "celebrate the creative side of the mortgage banking business." The show opened at Zenith this week.

It was a bad investment.

The 91 works by as many artists (chosen from 290 who sent slides) are an odd lot of paintings, sculpture, ceramics, photographs and mixed media works that dip wildly in quality from professional to near-amateur, despite three well-qualified judges (including Washington critic David Tannous and curator Harry Rand). What the works do manage to share is a loose relationship to the show's stated, open-ended and potentially interesting theme of "shelter," which the Mortgage Bankers went on to define as "dealing with everything from houses and apartments to factories and farms . . . any entity in our society that requires a mortgage to build . . . "

Beyond that, the interest rate plummets.

For one thing, the organizers clearly failed to get the word out for what was meant to be a "national" enterprise, and more than half the artists -- 48 in all -- turn out to be from the Washington area. The judges' choices (and omissions) also seem riddled with compromise. Eight of the artists are represented by Zenith Gallery. The prizes, except for the honorable mentions, are largely a joke.

But you can't blame the artists who entered, no doubt lured by the $6,500 in cash prizes. There was also the hope of sales, and the possibility of having work reproduced on the cover of Mortgage Banking magazine. Artists, like everyone else, need to eat.

There are some mitigating sparks of talent and imagination in the broad interpretation of the "shelter" theme, which includes everything from two tiny gouaches of a barn and landscape by Washington artist Craig Cahoon, perforated like postage stamps, to the ambitious Frank Stella-inspired fiberglass wall construction by David Nez of Baltimore -- a bouquet of protruding buildings, columns, rulers and pencils. There are also several good traditional paintings, including William C. Reynolds' "Georgetown Sidewalk," (one of several well-deserved honorable mentions), Margaret Adams Parker's "Corner Restaurant" and Charles Broxmeyer's view of an Arlington shopping center with awnings.

But the best works tend to be three-dimensional, and if I were awarding the first prize of $3,000, it would have gone without question to Pittsburgh's Carol Kumata, whose four-sided painted metal "Storm Season" shows a city besieged by a flood, a tornado and a snowstorm, all sheltered under an encompassing roof-like form.

This show (of which Zenith proprietor Margery Goldberg says, "I concoct a lot of ideas, but even I didn't dream this one up") will continue at Zenith (rear of 1441 Rhode Island Ave. NW) through September. Hours are 10 to 6 Mondays through Fridays, 11 to 6 Saturdays. Jill Romanoke & Sandra Bracken

Glen Echo Park is currently celebrating its 15th year as a major cultural resource here with a two-person show titled "Inside/Outside." It features the large, handsome, delicately colored sculptural rattan baskets of Jill Romanoke inside the gallery (a show that could have used some editing) and three works by a talented newcomer, sculptor Sandra Bracken, in the park nearby.

Bracken's work, not seen before in any depth, bears a closer look in a downtown gallery. (In fact, one of her sculptures -- though not the best -- is included in the aforementioned show at Zenith.) Fashioned from found pieces of natural wood, transformed by woven caps of English ivy vines and smatterings of cement, Bracken's simple forms evoke the same sort of natural spirits and forces seen in the more sophisticated work of her former teacher Martin Puryear. "Llandudno," for example, looks like a Druid beehive, while "Echo Catcher" seems to reach out to capture wafting sounds and rain. Both shows continue through September. Hours are noon to 5 every day. All About Prints

Determined to start the season right? The National Gallery of Art is offering an introductory survey course on "Prints & Printmakers," starting this morning at 11. Henceforth, the free series of eight one-hour slide lectures will be given in the East Building auditorium (concourse level) on Tuesdays at 12:30, with the same lecture repeated each Saturday morning at 11, through Oct. 22. Lecturers are Christopher With and Eric Denker from the gallery's education department. Starting with today's introductory lecture, "Printmaking Techniques," the course will cover the chronological development of prints from 15th-century Germany and Italy to present-day America, covering artists from Albrecht Durer to Jim Dine. No fees or prior registration is required. Whistler's Etchings

On the subject of prints, the University of Maryland Art Gallery in College Park is showing "Drawing Near: Whistler Etchings from the Zelman Collection," 90 etchings and dry points by the famous American expatriate artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The show caps Whistler's 150th-birthday year, which was marked last season by several exhibitions at the Freer and elsewhere. This show from a noted Los Angeles collection includes early portraits and choice impressions of London, Venice and Amsterdam, with special attention to rare subjects and prints dedicated to Whistler's friends and patrons.

Two free gallery talks are planned: on Wednesday, Sept. 11, at 3 p.m. by Eric Denker, senior lecturer at the National Gallery of Art; and on Wednesday, Sept. 18, at 4:40 p.m. by Ruth E. Fine, curator of graphic arts at the National Gallery and author of the exhibition catalogue. The gallery is located in the Art-Sociology Building on the College Park campus, and is open Mondays through Fridays from 10 to 4, Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5, and Wednesday evenings until 9. The show will continue through Oct. 16