The arts in South Philadelphia just got a mobile ambassador in the form of a sprightly hued van known as ColorWheels.

The 2011 Ford Transit Utility van awash in vivid primary colors will soon snake its way through the narrow streets of Bella Vista and its surrounding neighborhoods, spreading a message that touts the joys of making art.

"We imagine ColorWheels to be this kind of Swiss Army knife of the arts that rolls up to the corner, opens the doors, and a printmaking studio comes out and the digital photography studio comes out," said Matthew Braun, executive director of Fleisher Art Memorial.

The van project is Fleisher's way of fulfilling its mission to make the arts available to diverse communities. Founded as the Graphic Sketch Club by Samuel S. Fleisher in 1898, the organization offers free and low-cost art classes at its Catharine Street headquarters.

ColorWheels will offer mobile workshops in photography, silk-screening, drawing, and other forms of the arts - all from the Ford van. It will be staffed by an artist and a studio technician who will travel through South Philadelphia - and later citywide - taking art to festivals, street fairs, and neighbors' doorsteps.

A group of about 50 Fleisher officials and community members gathered Saturday at a ribbon-cutting at Eighth and Christian Streets.

The project was funded by a $300,000 grant from the Wallace Foundation and $65,000 from the PNC Arts Alive initiative.

The Wallace Foundation funded the research in which Fleisher studied its surrounding neighborhood and obstacles to resident participation in the arts.

"People said they are interested in the arts, but they are busy. And when they have free time, it's family time," said Magda Martinez, Fleisher's director of programming. "They asked that we come to them."

Language barriers and issues of trusting an unknown institution were also obstacles, Fleisher officials said.

So they created ColorWheels to take art from Fleisher to the neighborhood. PNC funded the purchase of the van, and students in a graphic-arts class taught by Jody Graff, a teacher and administrator at Drexel University, designed the van, logo, business cards, and brochures.

"I think it's a great idea," said Philip Gross, 21, a junior who worked on the van design with classmate Catherine Lewandowski. "Everyone deserves to experience art. Some may not have access, and I think it can help bring a community together."

On Saturday, children participated in a silk-screening activity before the ribbon-cutting.

My Tran of Southwest Philadelphia watched as his children - Vivian, Brian, and Victoria - colored the ColorWheels logo onto a cloth tote bag.

"They love art. It opens their minds and their imaginations," Tran said, "and it's better than staying home and playing games all the time."

Contact Kristin E. Holmes

at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.